The highest-ranking official flagged for breaking federal law in today's Department of Justice Inspector General's report was Kyle Sampson, a former chief of staff for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
Sampson routinely violated DOJ policy and federal law by using overt political and ideological considerations when filling key DOJ jobs such as immigration judges, according to the report today from the DOJ's Inspector General. Federal law and Justice Department policy require career officials to be hired on merit and prohibit discrimination based on political affiliations.
Federal immigration judgeships were especially targeted for politicization. In October 2003, shortly after Sampson started working at DOJ, then as Counselor to Attorney General John Ashcroft, he began to overhaul the selection process for immigration judges. "[We] were only considering essentially Republican lawyers for appointment," Sampson said, according to the IG's report. (It was not clear from the report whether Sampson said that to IG investigators or in another setting)
Prior to 2004, immigration judges were appointed in an essentially non-political bureaucratic process handled by the Office of the Chief Immigration Judge. Vacancies were posted, resumes sorted, interviews conducted and decisions made by lower-level DOJ officials, according to the report.
Sampson's new process involved "coordination" with White House and an extra effort to get friends of the Bush administration into the judgeships when possible. Sampson circulated a document outlining the new process.
"Many lawyers seeking positions within the Administration, including judgeships, become known to the White House offices of Political Affairs, Presidential Personnel, and Counsel to the President." The document stated that some lawyers might qualify to be IJs, and that "coordination" was needed to ensure that such lawyers were "informed of the opportunity" to become IJs.
Also, Sampson often called over to the White House personnel office seeking "ideas for immigration judge postings." Sampson told a staffer to "contact the White House to get any candidate ideas that they had for immigration judges".
In one case, Sampson pushed a prospective judicial candidate who was supported by White House political director Karl Rove.
Regarding that candidate, whose name was not disclosed, Kevin Ohlson, then deputy director of the Executive Office for Immigration Review, told the IG's investigators that he was "fully aware of the fact" that Sampson was pushing Rove's pick and that was affecting the formal evaluation.
"The finger was on the scale," Ohlson said.
That candidate was ultimately appointed to be an immigration judge in October 2005, the report said.
When questioned, Sampson said he thought the Immigration judges were political appointees, not career positions, and therefore not subject to civil service rules. He said Ohlson and the Office of Legal Counsel told him that. But Ohlson said he never said anything to that effect and investigators from the IG's office found no evidence that OLC provided any guidance to Sampson on the matter.
Sampson's lawyer, Brad Berenson, said today the hiring decisions were an honest mistake and that Sampson "immediately agreed with the recommendation to put a stop to this process" when he first learned he may have been wrong.
Here's a clip of Sampson's testimony on Capitol Hill in March 2007.