Sexuality Bias Seen at Justice Department

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by
The Los Angeles Times

Sexuality Bias Seen at Justice Department

An internal report says alleged homosexuality was used as a litmus test in hiring and firing. Margaret Chiara, a former U.S. attorney, now thinks a false rumor cost her her job.

by
Richard B. Schmitt

WASHINGTON - When Bush administration officials at the Justice Department dismissed nine U.S. attorneys in 2006, there were various theories as to why the prosecutors were being let go.0729 09

They were too soft on the death penalty. They did not prosecute enough illegal immigrants. They did not go after enough Democrats.

On Monday, the Justice Department's internal watchdog hinted at perhaps the most sensational justification yet -- perceived homosexuality.

In the second of a series of reports on the politically charged tenure of former Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, the department's inspector general found that two former Justice aides used sexual orientation as a litmus test in deciding whom they would hire or fire.

The report describes an alleged "sexual relationship" between a career prosecutor and a U.S. attorney, who were not named. Margaret M. Chiara, the former U.S. attorney in Grand Rapids, Mich., said in an interview with The Times that she now believed she was fired because of the erroneous belief that she was having a relationship with career prosecutor Leslie Hagen.

"I could not begin to understand how I found myself sharing the misfortune of my former colleagues," Chiara said of the eight other U.S. attorneys who were fired. "Now I understand."

Justice officials said after her firing that Chiara was let go because of mismanagement and because she had caused morale in her office to sink. Chiara said Monday she believed those concerns were raised by the same people who spread rumors about her and Hagen.

"I guess now I am persuaded with deep regret that this is what was the basis," she added. "There is nothing else."

The investigators found that Hagen lost a coveted assignment in Washington after rumors of the supposed relationship reached Gonzales aide Monica M. Goodling.

Chiara and Hagen told investigators that they did not have a sexual relationship, according to the report. Lawyers for Goodling declined to comment.

The report released Monday provides a more detailed examination of questionable moves made by Goodling and others -- including Gonzales' former chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson -- that were revealed during congressional hearings last year.

A former public affairs officer who became the Justice Department's liaison with the White House, Goodling testified under a grant of immunity before the House Judiciary Committee that she had "crossed a line" and allowed political and other impermissible factors to affect her hiring decisions.

The latest disclosures include a finding that Goodling rejected the application of a career terrorism prosecutor for a job at Justice Department headquarters because his wife was active in local Democratic politics. The report said a less-qualified candidate was hired.

Goodling also sought out the advice of the White House and other Republicans in filling vacant immigration judge positions. Goodling -- who declined to be interviewed by the authors of the report -- previously testified that, based on advice from Sampson, she incorrectly had believed that it was legal to consider political factors in selecting judges.

The report found that Gonzales was unaware of many of the hiring decisions, and took action when he realized there were problems.

Gonzales' lawyer, George J. Terwilliger III, said Monday that the report was a measure of vindication for the former attorney general.

Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey said in a statement that he was "of course disturbed" by the findings, and noted that the department had taken action to head off future abuses.

A spokeswoman for Glenn A. Fine, the Justice Department inspector general, declined to comment when asked why the report did not address whether Goodling had retaliated against Chiara as well as Hagen.

The office is preparing a separate report on the firings of the nine U.S. attorneys, and some observers speculated that the circumstances surrounding the dismissal of Chiara may be addressed there.

Hagen was hired by Chiara in Grand Rapids about a year after Chiara was appointed by President Bush to lead the U.S. attorney's office in western Michigan. The women had known each other since they were county prosecutors together in the 1990s. After Hagen joined the U.S. attorney's office, the women would often commute together to work.

Hagen was hired to focus on crimes affecting Native Americans -- a priority of Chiara's -- and she was successful, winning an award from the director of the administrative office in Washington overseeing U.S. attorneys.

The report does not address how the rumors about sexual orientation began. The report also says there were rumors that the women "took government trips together" and that Hagen "received large bonuses." But it found that allegations about the supposed financial benefits were never investigated or referred for investigation, and thus remained unsubstantiated.

Lisa Banks, Hagen's attorney, said Monday that all of the allegations were untrue.

"This rumor of a relationship between [Hagen and Chiara] is absolutely false. There was no such relationship, no improper trips or bonuses. It was completely fabricated, based on nothing but malicious rumor," Banks told The Times.

Banks said she believed the rumors were started by other attorneys in the Grand Rapids office who eventually landed jobs at the Justice Department in Washington. She declined to identify them.

"Leslie was a stellar performer. She earned a coveted award. It engineered some jealously. Because she was doing well, and because she was a colleague and friend of the U.S. attorney, I think that is probably where these rumors started," Banks said. "Once they were heard by Monica Goodling . . . that was the end of Ms. Hagen and her career."

After working in Grand Rapids, Hagen was reassigned in 2005 to the Justice Department in Washington to work on Native American issues and was offered a customary extension by her supervisors after a year on the job.

Goodling intervened and blocked the extension. The report said that several witnesses told investigators that her opposition was based on the "alleged sexual orientation."

One official told investigators about a conversation in which he told Goodling that he had heard the rumors that the women were lesbians. He said Goodling responded to that news "by putting her head in her hands and asking why no one had told her about this information before."

Monday's report also said that Goodling used an Internet search that included the words "gay" and "homosexual" to screen candidates and their backgrounds.

Investigators found that Goodling used the same search parameters as Jan Williams, who served as White House liaison before Goodling. The report said that Williams had used the string in late 2005 and early 2006 to research candidates for positions on a national advisory commission on violence against women.

Since being dismissed, Chiara, 64, has been serving on a national commission investigating sexual violence in prisons. Hagen, 44, has been working in a Justice Department office that oversees grant programs regarding sex offender registration and notification.

Lawyers for Goodling released a statement saying that her testimony before Congress had brought to light many of the abuses included in Monday's report. They described the testimony as "among the most candid and meticulous that has been seen on Capitol Hill in decades."

© 2008 The Los Angeles Times

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