NEW YORK (CNN) -- Justice Department officials committed no crime by letting improper political considerations drive hirings of prosecutors, immigration judges and other career government lawyers, U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey said Tuesday, speaking to the American Bar Association.
Attorney General Michael Mukasey addresses the American Bar Association meeting Tuesday in New York.
"I am well aware that some people have called on me and on the department to take even more drastic steps" in handling such cases, Mukasey said, according to a text of his prepared remarks. "Where there is evidence of criminal wrongdoing, we vigorously investigate it. And where there is enough evidence to charge someone with a crime, we vigorously prosecute.
"But not every wrong, or even every violation of the law, is a crime," he said. He referenced a report from the department's inspector general and another from the Office of Professional Responsibility that he said indicate the officials had "deviated from the strict standards" set by the department for hirings.
However, "in this instance, the two joint reports found only violations of the civil service laws," Mukasey said.
But he made it clear he did not condone the hirings, which occurred under his predecessor, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
"The conduct described in those reports is disturbing," Mukasey said. "The mission of the Justice Department is the evenhanded application of the Constitution and the laws enacted under it. That mission has to start with the evenhanded application of the laws within our own department. Some people at the department deviated from that strict standard, and the institution failed to stop them.
"I want to stress that last point because there is no denying it: The system failed," Mukasey said.
"The active wrongdoing detailed in the two joint reports was not systemic in that only a few people were directly implicated in it. But the failure was systemic in that the system -- the institution -- failed to check the behavior of those who did wrong. There was a failure of supervision by senior officials in the department. And there was a failure on the part of some employees to cry foul when they were aware, or should have been aware, of problems."
The inspector general's report documented improper political considerations favoring "loyal Bushies" under Gonzales.
The report said Monica Goodling, then the White House liaison for the attorney general, was the key operative behind many of the politicized decisions involving career prosecutors and immigration judges. Goodling; Kyle Sampson, former Gonzales chief of staff; and at least four others were sharply criticized for weighing applicants' political views in hiring for the nonpolitical positions.
Last month, furious Democrats quizzed the department's inspector general, Glenn Fine, on the issue, demanding to know why no one was prosecuted. Fine insisted no laws had been broken.
On Tuesday, however, Mukasey noted that improvements have been made within the department since the time referenced by the reports.
"I have made repeatedly clear, in both private meetings with department employees and in public appearances, that it is neither permissible nor acceptable to consider political affiliations in the hiring of career department employees," he said.
Those who were hired, he said, will not be penalized. "Two wrongs do not make a right. ... The people hired in an improper way did not, themselves, do anything wrong."
Fine promised lawmakers last month that his investigators would work as rapidly as possible to conclude two other reports on political influence within the department. He said a report on the firings of federal prosecutors will include information on Gonzales' role, and a report on political considerations within the Civil Rights Division also is forthcoming.
Fine's office is jointly working with the Office of Professional Responsibility in those probes. The inspector general's office cannot independently and thoroughly investigate and discipline career lawyers within the Justice Department, as that is Office of Professional Responsibility's jurisdiction.
Top Justice Department officials said Tuesday that Mukasey has not ruled out criminal prosecutions if there is evidence in either of those reports to justify such action.
CNN's Terry Frieden contributed to this report.