Last fall, after Debra Wong Yang announced that she was leaving her job as U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, Monica M. Goodling went to work to find a replacement.
Goodling, then the Justice Department’s liaison with the White House, helped organize a series of interviews at the department with candidates for the influential post -- much to the surprise of a bipartisan commission in California that had been responsible for screening U.S. attorney candidates in the Golden State.
Goodling’s role in the selection process was reined in after a member of the commission complained to senior officials at the White House and the Justice Department. But the incident, described by a person close to the process, underscores the central role in the U.S. attorneys affair played by Goodling, who is set to testify on Capitol Hill today under a grant of immunity from prosecution.
How a 33-year-old graduate of a little-known law school that teaches courses on the philosophy of punishing and controlling “sin” became such a powerful figure in the Justice Department is a key question for congressional investigators looking into charges that the department has been turned into a political tool of the Republican Party.
Goodling, who resigned in April, has come to symbolize what critics see as the triumph of politics over principle at the Justice Department under Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales. Along with D. Kyle Sampson, Gonzales’ former chief of staff, Goodling was one of the gatekeepers in identifying the eight U.S. attorneys who were dismissed last year. Democrats, and some of the fired prosecutors, say they suspect the terminations were politically motivated to help Republican office-seekers.
The Justice Department inspector general is also investigating whether Goodling abused the authority she was given by Gonzales to hire career prosecutors. The watchdog is investigating, among other things, allegations that Goodling used a political litmus test in considering job applicants -- a violation of department rules and federal law.
Through her lawyer, John Dowd, Goodling has denied breaking any laws. Dowd said Tuesday that Goodling would have a prepared statement when she testified today before the House Judiciary Committee. He declined further comment and said Goodling was unavailable for interviews.
Her long-awaited testimony could shed light on the motives behind the hiring and firing of U.S. attorneys, including the involvement of the White House and political strategist Karl Rove. She could also deal another blow to Gonzales, whose tenure has been threatened by the scandal.
Critics say that Gonzales, by countenancing the firings, hurt the independence of the Justice Department and revealed himself to be more concerned about doing the bidding of the White House than protecting the department’s credibility and integrity.
“People like Monica ... were misguided and didn’t get it,” said H.E. “Bud” Cummins III, one of the U.S. attorneys dismissed last year. Still, Cummins said, Gonzales and other senior officials deserve the lion’s share of the blame. “It is their job to stand up and say, ‘No,’ ” he said in an interview. “There obviously was a failure, no matter whose idea this was, at the top levels of the department to assert independent judgment.”
Some of Goodling’s former co-workers insist that she has been vilified.
Mark Corallo, a former Justice Department spokesman, said Goodling was trying to bring balance to the department, and he ridiculed those who criticized her for trying to screen potential hires based on their political beliefs. The civil rights division, he argued, has long been populated by “some of the most radical Democrats in the law.”
He called Goodling “a real perfectionist; an incredibly energetic, good person.”
Goodling’s rise to power paralleled the growing influence of religious conservatives in the Bush administration in general, and the Justice Department in particular.
In 1999, she earned a degree from the Regent University School of Law in Virginia Beach, Va. Founded by televangelist Pat Robertson, Regent University claims 150 past and present members of the Bush administration among its alumni. Accredited by the American Bar Assn., the law school boasts of a “distinctive” Christian-based mission “to bring to bear the will of our Creator, Almighty God, upon legal education and the legal profession,” according to its website.
Goodling was an ardent practitioner of her faith, according to former colleagues who -- like most interviewed for this report -- requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about her. Her conservative ideals, they said, were such that she once refused to go to a Justice Department baby shower because the mother was unwed. They also said that she once balked at funding an anti-gun public service video because she thought it promoted rap music and glorified a violent lifestyle.
After law school and a stint during the 2000 election doing opposition research for the GOP, Goodling landed in the public affairs office at the Justice Department. She did a six-month tour at the U.S. attorney’s office in Alexandria, Va., that was designed to give nonprosecutors a taste of the courtroom. In spring 2005, she became deputy director of the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys -- a Justice Department arm that provides support, personnel and policy guidance to prosecutors around the country.
Her tenure at that office appears to have been crucial to facilitating the plan to fire U.S. attorneys. Former colleagues said that she prevailed upon the head of the office, Michael A. Battle, to replace two long-serving officials who probably would have viewed the firing of prosecutors without cause as highly suspicious, and helped install a fellow Regent law school graduate as a replacement.
Battle, who since has resigned from the Justice Department and has been unavailable for comment, was the Justice official who notified seven of the U.S. attorneys that they were being dismissed in December.
Later, as both counselor to Gonzales and the White House liaison, Goodling’s influence appeared to grow. Working in tandem with Sampson, she was delegated the power to hire and fire scores of political appointees at the Justice Department.
She also weighed in on the hiring of career prosecutors in offices run by interim U.S. attorneys around the country, who did not have full hiring authority. She once held up the application of a Howard University law graduate who had worked in the civil rights division of the Environmental Protection Agency because she feared he was a “liberal Democrat,” former colleagues said.
Justice Department e-mails produced during the congressional investigation into the U.S. attorneys’ firings have shown her to be a powerful and opinionated figure. Her notes indicate she considered fired U.S. Atty. David C. Iglesias of New Mexico to be an “absentee landlord”; Iglesias contends he was away from the office only because he was fulfilling a military reserve obligation. She saved a U.S. attorney in North Carolina from the hit list because “there are plenty of others there to start with.”
A clear role
Goodling’s role in the selection of U.S. attorney candidates for Los Angeles, little known outside legal circles, is now becoming clear.
The California commission -- headed by financier and Bush ally Gerald L. Parsky -- was created in 2001 as a result of a deal between the Bush administration and California’s two Democratic senators. The idea was to develop a bipartisan selection process for judges and U.S. attorneys that would avoid protracted nomination fights and opposition from Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.
Once Yang resigned in November to pursue private law practice, it was up to the commission to make recommendations to the White House and the Justice Department. But Sampson and Goodling tried to generate candidates of their own. Interviews were scheduled with half a dozen people, many of whom had held political appointments in the department.
Parsky did not respond to e-mailed questions about his role in the process.
After word of the interview schedule leaked, Parsky called the White House and the Justice Department to complain, according to a person familiar with the process who requested anonymity because it involves a personnel matter. Goodling was allowed to proceed with the interviews, but was told she had to tell the candidates that they would have to reapply through the commission.
Ultimately, the commission is believed to have recommended two candidates; the only one interviewed by the Justice officials in Washington was a career prosecutor who has headed the criminal division of the Los Angeles office. The White House has not said whom it will nominate for the post.
Some people close to the selection process suspect Goodling and Sampson were attempting an end-run around the commission to install a politically connected Washington insider, possibly by using a law that permitted the attorney general to appoint interim U.S. attorneys without Senate oversight.
“They were caught in the act,” said the person familiar with the process. “This was frankly a warning sign that problems existed among a relatively small group ... who decided they had power and authority and could do what they wanted.”
Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesman, strongly disputed the characterization that the interviews were an end-run around the commission. A White House spokesman added: “We have previously and since have worked through the Parsky commission to interview potential judicial and U.S. attorney candidates in California, and that is appropriate.”
On Tuesday, Congress passed a bill repealing the law allowing for interim appointments of U.S. attorneys, saying that it threatened to compromise the system of checks and balances between lawmakers and the executive branch.
Times staff writer Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.