Report: DOJ Hiring Practices Changed

Posted July 28, 2008 at 6:29pm

With the encouragement of senior Bush administration aides who overhauled hiring practices, GOP Senators and House Members hand-picked federal immigration judges between 2004 and 2006, according to a Justice Department report released Monday.

The 146-page report, written by Justice’s inspector general and Office of Professional Responsibility, focused on hiring practices in the attorney general’s office and found that three Bush administration aides routinely violated federal law and agency policies by basing decisions for career positions on a job candidate’s political affiliations.

According to the report, Kyle Sampson, chief of staff to then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, reshaped the traditional hiring process for immigration judges — who are attorneys appointed to conduct “quasi-judicial proceedings relating to exclusion, deportation, removal, and asylum cases.”

Prior to spring 2004, the report states, those positions — approximately 200 judges preside over courts nationwide — were treated as career appointments.

Any vacancies were advertised by the department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review including requirements such as a knowledge of immigration law and procedures and litigation experience, as well as a statement that the department was an Equal Opportunity Employer “that does not discriminate on the basis of, among other things, ‘politics.’”

The report gives no indication that House or Senate lawmakers played any role in the hiring process, then directed by the Office of the Chief Immigration Judge.

Under Sampson, however, the investigation found that the hiring process was altered to eliminate vacancy announcements, instead routing the details of available jobs through the attorney general’s office to seek recommendations directly from the White House.

According to the report, Sampson, who has asserted he believed he was acting within the law, outlined the new process in October 2003 and implemented the new appointment process by January 2004.

“Sampson and others improperly considered political or ideological affiliations in selecting IJ candidates,” the report states. It later notes, however, that: “The evidence indicates that neither Attorney General [John] Ashcroft nor Attorney General Gonzales was involved in selecting individuals to be appointed as IJs.”

Sampson and his deputies solicited candidates for the immigration judgeships from sources, including, the White House Office of Political Affairs, White House Presidential Personnel Office, counsel to the president, Republican Members of Congress and other political appointees.

“The evidence also showed that Sampson and the [Office of the Attorney General] solicited and received candidates for [judge] positions from various Republican Members of Congress,” the report states. Bush administration aides “also referred candidates who had recommendations from congressmen, and that ‘all of [the Members] were Republicans.’”

The report states that of the more than 40 candidates for judgeships during the review period, “we did not find any examples of a candidate who had been recommended by a Democratic Member of Congress.”

Although one candidate was recommended by “a Democratic Senator from Nevada,” who is not named in the report but is presumed to be Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the only lawmaker who fits that description for the period under review. The report notes that nomination was not acted on because of a lawsuit that had prompted the department to freeze its hiring process.

According to the report, among those lawmakers who also recommended immigration judges was Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who sought the appointment of an unnamed former aide to a newly established immigration court in Salt Lake City. The aide had previously worked on the Senate Judiciary Committee and the department’s Office of Immigration Litigation in the Civil Division.

Although the aide was approved for the post, he withdrew his nomination before accepting, at which time Sampson sought a second recommendation from the Utah Senator’s office.

“Let me see if Sen. Hatch has any other candidates he’d like to recommend,” Sampson, a former Hatch aide, wrote in an e-mail at the time. A Hatch aide subsequently faxed the office the résumé of a federal prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office for the district of Utah, and that candidate, also unnamed, accepted the post.

In a statement issued Monday, Hatch said: “Immigration remains a hot topic in Utah and ensuring qualified candidates are considered for these important positions has always been a high priority.”

Hatch added, “I am always willing to recommend qualified candidates for positions, especially positions such as this one which have a direct impact on Utah.” A Hatch spokesman did not respond to an inquiry about whether Hatch was asked for recommendations or if he offered them on his own initiative.

The report notes that unnamed Republican Senators from both Virginia and New Hampshire also recommended candidates to immigration courts in their home states.

The Justice Department initiated a new hiring process for the immigration judgeships in April 2008 that once again includes public announcements of job vacancies.