Story Highlights• Former official under investigation for allegations he illegally hired career lawyers
• Bradley Schlozman accused of hiring based on political affiliation
• Justice Department denies the allegations
• Congress wants to examine hiring practices at civil rights division in particular
From Kelli Arena
CNN Washington Bureau
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Congressional investigators are looking into new allegations a top official at the Justice Department illegally hired career lawyers based on their political affiliations.
Investigators are focusing on Bradley Schlozman, a former top official in the department's Civil Rights Division, who recently returned to Washington after serving as interim U.S. attorney in Kansas City, Missouri.
The Justice Department denies violating federal law, saying an applicant's political affiliation "is not a criterion solicited or considered in the hiring process."
The claims have surfaced amid the congressional investigation of the firings of federal prosecutors in eight cities in 2006 -- allegedly for political rather than professional reasons.
But Ty Clevenger, a former Justice Department employee, said Schlozman ordered him to remove information identifying him as a Republican from his paperwork when he applied for a job. And Richard Ugelow, a former Justice lawyer, said the department has been hiring "people who have certain political persuasion and only a certain political persuasion" in recent years.
"That's not healthy for enforcement of the nation's civil rights laws," said Ugelow, who now teaches law at Washington's American University.
Rep. Linda Sanchez, the head of the House Judiciary subcommittee investigating the dismissals, said Congress wants to examine the hiring practices at the Justice Department and the civil rights division in particular.
"If there is one department that should be above political consideration for hiring and firing, that is the Department of Justice," said Sanchez, D-California.
Congress and the Justice Department's internal watchdog agency are also looking into allegations that Monica Goodling, a former top aide to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, sought out fellow Republicans for Justice Department jobs. Goodling resigned over the U.S. attorneys flap and invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination rather than answer questions from Congress. (Full story)
Sanchez: We are highly disturbed by emerging information
"We are highly disturbed by the emerging information, because it seems to repeat this pattern going on at the [Department of Justice] where people are chosen for their positions not for their experience and qualifications, but rather whether or not they match a certain political ideology," Sanchez said.
Among those raising concerns is Joseph Rich, a 36-year veteran of the department, who left in 2005 after serving as head of the Civil Rights Division's section that deals with voting rights.
"The whole hiring process had been changed to put the decision-making in political appointees' hands, and it was clear it was being politicized in that manner," Rich told CNN.
In a written statement Monday, the Justice Department said the Civil Rights Division "has always considered and continues to consider attorneys from a wide variety of educational backgrounds, prior legal experiences, non-legal experiences, and demonstrated personal qualities applicable to the job."
"The suggestion that one can measure a person's commitment to civil rights based merely upon their affiliation or their lack of affiliation with a particular legal or civil rights group could be seen as discriminatory itself," the statement said.
It said the Civil Rights division has brought more cases in the past six years, including 18 lawsuits by the voting section in 2006 -- which it said was double the annual average over the past 30 years. And it said prosecutors had a conviction rate of 98 percent in criminal voting cases -- "the highest such figure in the history of the Criminal Section."
Rich now works for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, a nonprofit organization that held a March forum on what it called the politicization of the Justice Department. He said he never saw Schlozman make decisions based on partisan factors -- but he said hiring was increasingly concentrated in the hands of political appointees.
And he said political appointees at Justice overruled career lawyers' recommendations on controversial issues such as whether to approve a voter ID law in Georgia and the legality of 2002 redistricting efforts in Texas and Mississippi.
"There wasn't any formal statement that we were doing this to help the Republican Party, but certainly all of the circumstances behind the reviews indicated that," Rich said.
Critics of the administration have also questioned Schlozman's decision as U.S. attorney in western Missouri to bring vote-fraud cases against members of the antipoverty group ACORN before November's congressional election. The Justice Department said its cases are brought "on evidence, not politics."
But leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday asked Schlozman to answer questions about his handling of voter-fraud cases, including a lawsuit he pursued after his predecessor refused to support it. The committee's chairman, Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, and ranking Republican, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, said the case was dismissed by a federal judge who found "no evidence" to support it.
"We believe the committee would benefit from hearing directly from you in order to gain a better understanding of the role voter fraud may have played in the administration's decisions to retain or remove certain U.S. attorneys," they wrote.
CNN's Kevin Bohn contributed to this report
Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which on Monday questioned Bradley Schlozman about his handling of voter-fraud cases.
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