Who Is Esther Slater McDonald?

June 25, 2008 8:41 p.m.

Only two people were tagged in the DOJ Inspector General’s report (pdf) released yesterday for having violated federal law and department policy by screening applicants for career positions based on “political or ideological” factors.

One, Michael Elston, the former chief of staff for the deputy attorney general, we’ve already heard plenty about and has been in the mix since almost the moment the story of the politicization of DOJ broke. But the other, Esther Slater McDonald, is new to the DOJ name-game.

So who is she?

The IG report covers the time in which McDonald served as counsel to Associate Attorney General Bill Mercer, a short time frame of just thirteen months. But though she was there just a little over a year, McDonald’s name peppers the OIG report (pdf) over 100 times. She was deeply involved in trying to ferret out the political leanings of applicants. The report describes her frequent Internet searches of applicants to determine if they were “anarchists” or “leftists.”

When [Daniel] Fridman, [an assistant U.S. Attorney and fellow Screening Committee member] asked McDonald how she obtained the additional information, she told him she conducted searches on Google and MySpace, and read law review articles written by the applicants. For example, Fridman recalled that one candidate had written a law review article about the detention of individuals at Guantánamo, and McDonald noted on the application that she perceived the applicant’s viewpoint to be contrary to the position of the administration. On another application, McDonald noted that she found information on the Internet indicating that a candidate was an “anarchist.”

So where did this human resources wunderkind come from in the first place?

McDonald, who arrived at DOJ in September 2006, was part of the crowd of young DOJ hires who came in during the second Bush term after Alberto Gonzales moved from White House counsel to attorney general. They had limited experience, fierce loyalty to President Bush and sterling conservative credentials.

According to McDonald’s LinkedIn profile, she’s an alum of Pensacola Christian College and Notre Dame Law School. After graduating in 2003, she worked for Jones Day before being ushered into the hallowed halls of Gonzales’ DOJ by none other than the Monica Goodling herself:

On June 13, 2006, a partner at the law firm e-mailed Monica Goodling to recommend McDonald for a position at the Department. Goodling interviewed McDonald later that week. McDonald was hired as a political appointee as Counsel to Acting Associate Attorney General Mercer and began work on September 5, 2006.

Goodling, who would later be forced to resign as part of the U.S. attorneys scandal, was another young inexperienced DOJ official. She had done her undergraduate work at Messiah College in Pennsylvania and graduated from law school at Pat Robertson’s Regent University. At age 33, she served as a liaison between DOJ and the White House.

McDonald’s new job included assisting with oversight of DOJ grant programs, the Antitrust Division, and the Executive Office for U.S. Trustees. Within weeks, Mercer assigned her to the Honors Program/SLIP Screening Committee, which would ultimately be her downfall. Goodling was happy with the choice, according to Elston:

Elston said that when he informed Goodling that McDonald was to be on the Committee, Goodling “seemed pleased that Esther had been picked and said something to the effect ‘well, she’s had experience in this sort of thing.'”

It’s not clear what experience Goodling was referring to, but McDonald got to work screening applicants for their fealty to conservative ideology. On one occasion, McDonald marked three candidates as unacceptable, because of their “leftist” views. As she wrote in an email at the time to Fridman and Elston:

Poverty & Race Research Council actively works to extend racial discrimination through increased affirmative action and, while there, [the candidate] helped draft document arguing that federal law requires recipients of federal funding to seek actively to discriminate in favor of minorities (racial, language, and health) rather than merely to treat all applicants equally; Greenaction is an extreme organization founded by Greenpeace members and promoting civil disobedience and engaging in violence in protests, and the organization adheres to the Principles of Environmental Justice, which are positively ridiculous (e.g., recognizing ‘our spiritual interdependence to the sacredness of our Mother Earth’ and ‘oppos[ing] military occupation, repression and exploitation of lands, peoples and cultures, and other life forms’); [the candidate] also is/was a member of Greenpeace; [the candidate’s] essay is filled with leftist commentary and buzz words like ‘environmental justice’ and ‘social justice.’ [emphasis ours]

Within months her work on the Screening Committee would come under scrutiny. When first contacted for an interview by the OIG in September 2007, McDonald agreed. But then she postponed the interview so she could secure counsel. A new interview date was set for October 25, 2007, but department investigators would never get to interview McDonald.

At end of business day on October 24, McDonald’s attorney sent an email to investigators, informing them that his client was canceling the interview and was no longer an employee of the Justice Department:

We learned that McDonald had resigned from the Department, effective October 24. On the evening of October 23, she had told her supervisor, Acting Associate Attorney General Katsas, that the next day would be her last day at the Department. Katsas said that her resignation came as a surprise to him.

Since leaving DOJ, she has been working as an associate at the D.C. law firm, Seyfarth Shaw.

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