WASHINGTON U.S. President George W. Bush's Justice Department improperly injected politics into hiring programs, a department investigation released on Tuesday found.
A report by the department's inspector general and office of professional responsibility said members of a screening committee were asked to weed out "wackos" and ideological "extremists" who sought work in a competitive honors program for entry-level attorneys or as summer interns.
It said the committee rejected applicants with liberal or Democratic affiliations at a much higher rate than those with Republican, conservative or politically neutral backgrounds.
One candidate, a Harvard student fluent in Arabic who was at the top of his class, was put in a "questionable" category evidently because of his membership in the Council on American Islamic Relations civil-rights group.
Another candidate was described by a U.S. attorney who was asked for input as someone who "appears to favor a reintroduction of wolves" on federal lands.
Federal law and department policy prohibit such factors in hiring career positions.
The study said problems were notable in 2002, under Attorney General John Ashcroft, and in 2006, under Alberto Gonzales, a longtime ally of Bush who resigned last year under pressure over charges the department improperly ousted U.S. attorneys for political reasons.
"The screening committees in 2002 and 2006 improperly deselected candidates for interviews based on political and ideological affiliations," the report said.
It said the department has since dismantled the screening process established in 2002 and set new guidance on hiring criteria.
The department is still investigating the ouster of U.S. attorneys under Gonzales.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement, "Never again should blatant partisanship be made the crux of the Justice Department's hiring practices ... It houses our nation's top law enforcement officers, and it has been crippled in the last seven years."
Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who succeeded Gonzales, said "the consideration of political affiliations in the hiring of career department employees is impermissible and unacceptable."
He said he had accepted recommendations in the report to further guard against improper hiring factors.
(Editing by David Wiessler)