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First investigative report draws links between US attorney firings

WASHINGTON - The Justice Department's inspector general, an independent agency assigned to ride herd on DoJ conduct, has issued the first report in an anticipated series of investigations spurred by the firings of U.S. attorneys in December 2006.

The investigation detailed in the June 24 report does not address the U.S. attorney firings, though the report notes that while jointly investigating, along with the federal Office of Professional Responsibility, ''issues related to the removal of certain U.S. attorneys ... we decided to expand the scope of our investigation to include allegations regarding Honors Program and SLIP [Summer Law Intern Program] hiring.''

Both programs, one a career track and one a booster shot for budding careers, are coveted and highly competitive.

The investigation found the first ''direct evidence'' for the politicization of the hiring process in 2006, the first full calendar year of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' tenure. Gonzales is not directly implicated in the politicization of the program hiring processes.

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Five of the U.S. attorneys fired in December 2006 were known within DoJ for a commitment to law enforcement in Indian country. Another U.S. attorney slated for firing, Thomas B. Heffelfinger, now with Best & Flanagan LLP in Minneapolis, became targeted for his attention to the 2005 fatal shooting spree at Red Lake High School, on tribal land in Bemidji, Minn., according to Indian Country Today columnist Kara Briggs. Heffelfinger resigned prior to the firings, and only learned about DoJ intentions toward him from the later testimony before Congress of Monica Goodling, then senior counsel to Gonzales. Goodling resigned at the height of the controversy over the firings.

Of especial note to Indian country, then, in the June 24 investigation report, is that the only two DoJ employees identified as lawbreakers for their screening of Honors Program and SLIP candidates also have a connection to the U.S. attorney firings. Michael Elston has been directly implicated. But new to public knowledge is that Esther Slater McDonald was a Goodling hire.

According to background compilations by a number of Internet sources, including The Muckraker, the two shared an educational background that would have recommended them to a generally Christian-conservative political ideology. Goodling pursued undergraduate studies at Messiah College in Pennsylvania and got her law degree from Regent University, which is affiliated with televangelist Pat Robertson. McDonald schooled at Pensacola Christian College and Notre Dame Law.

Within months of her hire date, McDonald was unlawfully screening program candidates through politicized ideological filters. Objecting to one candidate, she wrote in an e-mail that an organization in his background ''adheres to the principles of environmental justice, which are positively ridiculous (e.g., recognizing 'our spiritual interdependence to the sacredness of our Mother Earth' and 'oppos[ing] military occupation, repression and exploitation of lands, peoples and cultures, and other life forms').''

The OIG has no power to prosecute. It makes recommendations based on its investigations. Newly installed U.S. Attorney Michael Mukasey said the DoJ will accept the report's recommendations.