WASHINGTON The Justice Department is considering launching a grand jury investigation into whether one of its former leaders misled Congress about playing politics with civil rights issues, a government official said Monday.
The move amounts to a first step from an internal inquiry toward possible criminal charges in the scandal that helped force the resignation of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
At issue is whether Bradley Schlozman intentionally misled senators during a June 2007 hearing when he gave conflicting statements about his role in an election-eve filing of a voter-fraud lawsuit in Missouri while serving, a year earlier, as a U.S. attorney based in Kansas City, Mo.
He also angered Democrats at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing when he admitted to boasting about hiring conservative loyalists over better-qualified lawyers in 2005 when he served as acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's civil rights division.
The department's inspector general has been investigating Schlozman's statements to the Senate Judiciary Committee in an internal inquiry over the last year.
On Monday, an official said the Justice Department has issued a grand jury referral an internal first step toward asking a grand jury to take up the case. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the issue.
It's not clear whether the issue already has been sent to a grand jury.
Both Schlozman and his Atlanta-based attorney, Bill Jordan, declined comment Monday. In an e-mail statement, Jordan said Schlozman "has not been contacted by the Justice Department regarding this alleged referral."
A Justice spokesman also declined comment.
The referral was first reported in Monday's editions of The Wall Street Journal.
Now in private practice in Wichita, Kan., Schlozman resigned from the department last August after testifying before the Senate panel that was examining whether political partisanship played a role in Justice investigations and in the hiring and firing of department officials.
Schlozman had defended his decision as U.S. Attorney in Kansas City to bring a Missouri voter-fraud case days before the 2006 election, despite guidelines that discourage such cases because of the chance they could influence voting.
Schlozman's predecessor in Kansas City, Todd Graves, testified at the same hearing that he was asked to resign his post after clashing with senior department officials over the handling of some high-profile cases, including the voter-fraud case. Graves was one of nine U.S. attorneys who were ousted in 2006 in an unusual midterm purge that ignited charges of White House political meddling at the fiercely independent Justice Department.
The firestorm over the firings resulted in Gonzales' resignation last September. The controversy, however, remains the topic of an internal Justice inquiry by Inspector General Glenn A. Fine and Office of Professional Responsibility chief Marshall Jarrett that is due out later this year.
At last year's Senate hearing, Schlozman initially told lawmakers he filed the voter-fraud case at the direction of senior Justice officials. Schlozman later clarified his testimony to say that he took "full responsibility" for the filing of those charges. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., angrily accused Schlozman of reversing his testimony.
At the same hearing, Schlozman admitted that he boasted to other officials about how many Republicans he managed to get hired at the department while he served as acting head of the Justice Department's civil rights division. He also said he told some job applicants to take their political background off resumes before applying for positions. He denied taking political affiliation into account in hiring.