Manipulating Justice to win elections

More details on how the Bush administration used the Justice Department as a partisan tool.

Topics: George W. Bush, Department of Justice, War Room,

As we reported in Salon beginning more than a week ago, the Bush administration’s partisan grip on the Department of Justice has reached well beyond the U.S. attorneys fired en masse last year. Over the past six years, the administration maneuvered to spread voter-fraud fears and recast the Civil Rights Division — doing so in ways “that clearly were intended to influence the outcome of elections,” as Joseph Rich, the former chief of the voting section in the Civil Right Division, affirms in an Op-Ed in today’s Los Angeles Times.

Rich’s indictment is particularly damning in details exposing a thumb-on-the-scales evaluation process for career Justice Department lawyers — the same bogus process that reared its ugly face with Kyle Sampson’s hit list in the U.S. attorneys scandal. Rich, a 35-year veteran of the Justice Department who served until 2005, explains what happened to career public servants who disagreed with loyal Bush appointees: “Seven career managers were removed in the civil rights division,” he writes. “I personally was ordered to change performance evaluations of several attorneys under my supervision. I was told to include critical comments about those whose recommendations ran counter to the political will of the administration and to improve evaluations of those who were politically favored.”

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Sound familiar?

“At the same time,” Rich continues, “career staff were nearly cut out of the process of hiring lawyers. Control of hiring went to political appointees, so an applicant’s fidelity to GOP interests replaced civil rights experience as the most important factor in hiring decisions.”

As Rich notes, this was an extraordinary departure from past practice. “I worked for attorneys general with dramatically different political philosophies — from John Mitchell to Ed Meese to Janet Reno. Regardless of the administration, the political appointees had respect for the experience and judgment of longtime civil servants,” Rich says. “Under the Bush administration, however, all that changed.”

Meanwhile, the damage to the public trust has been grave, says one of the fired U.S. attorneys. “Once you have given the public a reason to believe some of your decisions are improperly motivated, then they are going to question every decision you have made, or make in the future,” Bud Cummins, the U.S. attorney forced out of his post in Arkansas, told me in a recent e-mail. “You only get one chance to hold on to your credibility, and my team, who hold temporary custody of DOJ, has blown it in this case,” he said. “DOJ will be paying for it for some time to come.”

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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