As CQ readers know, I think Alberto Gonzales has proven himself an incompetent Attorney General, and would do this administration a huge favor by resigning — especially after his disastrous testimony before Congress in April. His continued presence enables every new significant detail in the firings of eight US Attorneys to become a major media sensation. That said, I’m hard pressed to find the scandal in the latest revelation by the National Journal’s Murray Waas, who breathlessly informs us that Gonzales delegated hiring and firing decisions for non-civil service positions to his aides (via Memeorandum):
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales signed a highly confidential order in March 2006 delegating to two of his top aides — who have since resigned because of their central roles in the firings of eight U.S. attorneys — extraordinary authority over the hiring and firing of most non-civil-service employees of the Justice Department. A copy of the order and other Justice Department records related to the conception and implementation of the order were provided to National Journal.
In the order, Gonzales delegated to his then-chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, and his White House liaison “the authority, with the approval of the Attorney General, to take final action in matters pertaining to the appointment, employment, pay, separation, and general administration” of virtually all non-civil-service employees of the Justice Department, including all of the department’s political appointees who do not require Senate confirmation. Monica Goodling became White House liaison in April 2006, the month after Gonzales signed the order.
The existence of the order suggests that a broad effort was under way by the White House to place politically and ideologically loyal appointees throughout the Justice Department, not just at the U.S.-attorney level. Department records show that the personnel authority was delegated to the two aides at about the same time they were working with the White House in planning the firings of a dozen U.S. attorneys, eight of whom were, in fact, later dismissed.
It’s important to note that the authority to hire and fire did not apply to careerists at Justice. The order specified that Sampson and Goodling only had that authority over non-civil service positions — essentially, the political appointees, which would include the USAs. Somehow, Waas wants to make a scandal that politically-connected senior staff members directly serving the AG could have hired and fired people in political positions, but that hardly rates as a scandal.
That authority already rests with the Attorney General. No one really believes that the AG makes all these decisions personally. Even without such an order, Cabinet officials delegate the nuts and bolts of those decisions to senior staff members. Even the President does this with his own appointees. Does anyone really believe that George Bush or Bill Clinton personally vetted each appointee or conducted his own personnel evaluations for all of his staff members?
The order as executed required Sampson and Goodling to get the approval of Gonzales for any terminations or hiring. That makes the order a non-issue, regardless of how many ways Waas can describe its “confidential” nature. Should Gonzales have mentioned this order during the Congressional hearings? Yes, and that’s perhaps the only valid criticism of the piece, but I’d challenge each of the Senators to swear under oath that they conduct all of the hiring and firing of non-civil service employees in their own offices before enabling their outrage.
Robert Litt confirms to Waas that the Clinton White House made most of the hiring decisions of non-civil service jobs at Justice during their term. He criticizes Gonzales for allowing two unqualified people to make those decisions in this case, but not the process itself, which is what Waas wants to make the issue. If Sampson and Goodling didn’t have the experience or the expertise for this responsibility, that speaks to competence, not to scandal, however.
I have no problem with criticism about Gonzales’ competence. Waas wants to make this into another accusation of near law-breaking, which is laughable.