NEW YORK Former Justice Department officials will not face prosecution for letting improper political considerations drive hirings of prosecutors, immigration judges and other career government lawyers, Attorney General Michael Mukasey said Tuesday.
Mukasey used his sharpest words yet to criticize the senior leaders who took part in or failed to stop illegal hiring practices during the tenure of his predecessor, Alberto Gonzales.
But, he told delegates to the American Bar Association annual meeting, "not every wrong, or even every violation of the law, is a crime. In this instance, the two joint reports found only violations of the civil service laws."
Other intrusions of Bush administration politics into department hirings and firings remain under investigation. Justice officials say the attorney general's remarks do not preclude criminal prosecutions if wrongdoing is found in the firing of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006 and the hiring practices in the department's civil rights division.
The political controversies prompted Gonzales' resignation last year.
Former Utahns involved include Kyle Sampson, Gonzales' former chief of staff, and Jan Williams, a former Justice Department liaison to the White House. Both are graduates of Brigham Young University, and Sampson was born in Cedar City.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said Mukasey "seems intent on insulating this administration from accountability."
The Vermont Democrat said Mukasey's remarks "appear premature based on the facts and evidence that congressional investigators and the inspector general have uncovered so far" in the hiring scandal. "We must continue to pursue the truth and facts, and hold any wrongdoers accountable," Leahy said.
An internal investigation concluded last month that for nearly two years, top advisers to Gonzales discriminated against applicants for career jobs who weren't Republican or conservative loyalists.
The federal government makes a distinction between "career" and "political" appointees, and it's a violation of civil service laws and Justice Department policy to hire career employees on the basis of political affiliation or allegiance.
Yet Monica Goodling, who served as Gonzales' counselor and White House liaison, routinely asked career job applicants about politics, the report concluded.
Mukasey, who once served as a federal judge in New York, said the Justice Department has taken steps under his leadership to prevent a recurrence of the hiring scandal.
"I have made repeatedly clear...that it is neither permissible nor acceptable to consider political affiliations in the hiring of career department employees," Mukasey said.
If the problems were to recur, Mukasey said he is confident department employees would speak up.
That did not happen during Gonzales' tenure, he said. Gonzales appeared unaware of the political hiring process outlined by Goodling and Sampson, the report said.
"There was a failure of supervision by senior officials in the department. And there was a failure on the part of some employees to cry foul when they were aware, or should have been aware, of problems," Mukasey said.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said more needs to be done to prevent political hiring at the agency. "Even if it is true they didn't commit a crime, it would be appropriate to make what they did a misdemeanor so that in the future, those who violate the civil service laws cannot escape unscathed," Schumer said in a statement.
The ABA has been at odds with the Bush administration on a range of issues, including treatment of prisoners suspected of terrorist ties and the need for a federal law to shield reporters from subpoenas.
Mukasey said that on the issue of politics in his department, there was no disagreement with the lawyers' group.
"Professionalism is alive and well at the Justice Department," he said.
Some candidates for career Justice Department jobs who were excluded because of politics could be invited to apply for new positions, Mukasey said.
He also ruled out firing or reassigning those who were hired under the now-discarded evaluation process.
"Two wrongs do not make a right," he said. "People who were hired in an improper way didn't themselves do anything wrong."