Armed with solid grades, glowing recommendations and a pair of internships, Sean M. Gerlich confidently applied to the Justice Department honors program two years ago, only to get a rejection letter.
Gerlich now suspects he was cast aside because of political considerations, part of a pattern of illegal hiring decisions based on partisanship that are now being documented by the Justice Office of the Inspector General and the Office of Professional Responsibility.
Investigators unveiled a report late last month detailing the litmus tests used in making selections for the intern and honors program. One hiring panel member performed Google searches for candidates' ties to environmental and social justice groups, the report said.
"It appears the politicization at Justice was so pervasive that even interns had to pass a partisan litmus test," House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) said last week.
More lengthy investigative reports on troubles in the civil rights unit and the firing of nine U.S. attorneys -- the focus of multiple congressional hearings and scores of media accounts -- are expected to be released this summer.
The revelations have brought strong reactions. Last week Gerlich sued the Justice Department for privacy violations, seeking access to his employment files and other paperwork from the committee that nixed his application. He suspects that the Justice Department hiring panel may have rejected him because of his work as a volunteer for Amnesty International and for a Democrat running in a state congressional race.
"The irony," said Gerlich, a young lawyer who now works for a firm in Brussels, "is I'm not actually especially liberal, particularly as regards antitrust law, the area in which I applied. I'm right of center."
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Hiring improprieties violate Justice Department policy and civil service laws, but they do not carry criminal penalties. Statements that former Justice officials made under oath to investigators and to Congress, however, could be subject to review for possible perjury and obstruction of justice, experts say.
Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey said that the department had overhauled its hiring practices in advance of the inspector general's report and reiterated that politics should play no role in prosecutions. Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said government attorneys will review Gerlich's lawsuit and will respond in court.
Three other young lawyers who contacted a reporter after reading the inspector general's report said they, too, have a hunch they were screened and rejected from the honors program for political reasons. Gerlich said he hopes that others will join the lawsuit and turn it into a class-action dispute.
Justice policy and the Civil Service Reform Act prohibit discrimination in hiring because of numerous factors including race, religion and political affiliation. The inspector general and Office of Professional Responsibility report asserted that using ideology "can also create the appearance that candidates are being discriminated against based on political affiliation."
But former Justice officials said it is naive to think that political considerations play no role in employment.
"Elections have consequences," said Mark Corallo, a Republican who was a Justice Department spokesman under Attorney General John D. Ashcroft. "I expect the next attorney general will be seeking to hire people of like mind. There's nothing criminal, sinister or out of the ordinary. It's normal."
© 2008 The Washington Post