WASHINGTON - Congressional investigators are beginning to focus on accusations that a top civil rights official at the Justice Department illegally hired lawyers based on their political affiliations, especially for sensitive voting rights jobs.
Two former department lawyers told McClatchy Newspapers that Bradley Schlozman, a senior civil rights official, told them in early 2005, after spotting mention of their Republican affiliations on their job applications, to delete those references and resubmit their resumes. Both attorneys were hired.
One of them, Ty Clevenger, said: "He wanted to make it look like it was apolitical."
Schlozman did not respond to phone calls to his home Sunday. But he denied the allegations in an earlier phone interview with McClatchy Newspapers and through a department spokesman. In the interview he said he "tried to de-politicize the hiring process" and filled jobs with applicants from "across the political spectrum."
Attention is turning to Schlozman after the announcement last week that the Justice Department opened an internal investigation to determine whether Monica Goodling, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' White House liaison, illegally took party affiliation into account in hiring entry-level prosecutors. The department's inspector general and its Office of Professional Responsibility are conducting that inquiry jointly.
Federal law and Justice Department policies bar the consideration of political affiliation in hiring of personnel for non-political, career jobs.
A congressional aide, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said that the House and Senate Judiciary Committees want to look beyond Goodling to see whether other department officials may have skewed recruiting and hiring to favor Republican applicants. Investigators have heard allegations that Schlozman showed a political bias in hiring and hope the department will permit him to be interviewed voluntarily, the aide said.
Sen. Claire McCaskell, D-Mo., told National Public Radio last week that she wants to hear testimony from Schlozman because "more answers under oath need to be given."
One of the former Justice Department employees, Clevenger, is pursuing a whistleblower suit alleging he was wrongly fired for exposing mistreatment of employees by his Special Litigation Section chief.
Clevenger and the other lawyer recounted Schlozman's odd handling of their job applications in the spring of 2005. Clevenger said his resume stated that he was a member of the conservative Federalist Society and the Texas chapter of the Republican National Lawyers Association. The other applicant's resume cited work on President Bush's 2000 campaign, said the attorney, who insisted upon anonymity for fear of retaliation.
They said Schlozman directed them to drop the political references and resubmit the resumes in what they believed were an effort to hide those conservative affiliations.
Clevenger also recalled once passing on to Schlozman the name of a friend from Stanford as a possible hire.
"Schlozman called me up and asked me something to the effect of, `Is he one of us?'" Clevenger said. "He wanted to know what the guy's partisan credentials were."
Schlozman, who recently completed more than a year's service as interim U.S. attorney in Kansas City that was marked with controversy, has drawn harsh criticism over his conduct as the top deputy in the Civil Rights Division starting in 2003 and a term of roughly seven months as its acting chief beginning in the spring of 2005.
Several former department lawyers assailed his treatment of senior employees and his rollback of longstanding policies aimed at protecting African-American voting rights. They blame him for driving veteran attorneys, including section chief Joseph Rich, to resign from their posts.
Rich recently told Congress that 15 of the 35 attorneys in the voting rights section have resigned since 2005. Former employees of the Voting Rights Section told McClatchy of at least eight hires since then of employees with conservative political connections.
The Boston Globe, which obtained resumes of civil rights hires under the Freedom of Information Act, reported Sunday that seven of 14 career lawyers hired under Schlozman were members of either the Federalist Society or the Republican National Lawyers Association.
Rich, who left the agency on April 30, 2005, and now works for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, told McClatchy Newspapers that Schlozman was "central to implementation of the politicization of the Civil Rights Division" and said he treated career lawyers with "disdain" and "vindictiveness."
His former deputy, Robert Kengle, told McClatchy that "Schlozman was never wrong and to even raise that possibility was asking for retribution."
Schlozman's hiring favored lawyers "with one primary characteristic - links to the Republican Party and right-wing groups," said David Becker, who left the section the same day as Rich.
"The lawyers hired by Schlozman, in virtually every case, had very little litigation experience, lesser academic credentials and, if they had any civil rights experience, it was in opposing the enforcement of civil rights laws," Becker told McClatchy.
One of those hired, Joshua Rogers, had been a law clerk for Mississippi federal Judge Charles Pickering, whom President Bush nominated for an appeals court judgeship over objections from civil rights groups.
Shortly after assuming his new job, Rogers was the lone dissenter in a staff recommendation that the department oppose a new Georgia law requiring every voter to produce a photo identification card - a law later found unconstitutional by a federal judge.
Schlozman said in the interview that staff "were only treated professionally" while he was in the Civil Rights Division and that in hiring, "I didn't care what your ideological perspective was."
He pointed to the recruitment of Mark Kappelhoff, a former counsel for the liberal American Civil Liberties Union, to head the division's Criminal Section, and to the promotion of Chris Coates, a former ACLU voting counsel, to serve as the top deputy chief of the voting section.
Rich and other lawyers said politics had little or no bearing on Kappelhoff's job - overseeing prosecution of human trafficking and police misconduct. They said Coates seemed to grow more conservative after his superiors passed him over for a promotion in favor of an African-American woman, and he filed a reverse-discrimination suit
© 2007 McClatchy Washington Bureau and wire service sources.