WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has agreed to pay for a private lawyer to defend former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales against allegations that he encouraged officials to inject partisan politics into the department's hiring and firing practices.
Lawyers from the Justice Department's civil division often represent department employees who're sued in connection with their official actions. However, Gonzales' attorney recently revealed in court papers that the Justice Department had approved his request to pay private attorney's fees arising from the federal lawsuit.
Dan Metcalfe, a former high-ranking veteran Justice Department official who filed the suit on behalf of eight law students, called the department's decision to pay for a private attorney rather than rely on its civil division "exceptional."
"It undoubtedly will cost the taxpayers far more," he said.
According to a person with knowledge of the case, the Justice Department has imposed a limit of $200 an hour or $24,000 a month on attorneys' fees. Top Justice Department attorneys generally earn no more than $100 per hour. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.
Asked why Gonzales made the request, Gonzales spokesman Robert Bork Jr. said that his client "values the work that the department's civil attorneys do in all cases" but thinks that "private counsel can often be useful where (department) officials are sued in an individual capacity, even where the suit has no substantive merit."
Charles Miller, a Justice Department spokesman, said the department wouldn't have any comment on the reasons for the approval and wouldn't answer questions about the cost to taxpayers.
The lawsuit accuses Gonzales and four other former and current Justice Department officials of instituting hiring practices that blocked liberal-leaning applicants from two department programs for law students. Gonzales resigned last year amid a controversy over the alleged hiring practices and over the firings of nine U.S. attorneys.
George J. Terwilliger III, a former deputy attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, is listed in court papers along with two other attorneys from his firm as representing Gonzales in the lawsuit.
It's unclear, however, whether Terwilliger will continue to represent Gonzales or whether another private attorney will take over the case. In court papers, he indicated that the department had to approve Gonzales' choice of an attorney, but added that the department generally defers to the defendant.
Miller wouldn't say whether other defendants in the suit have asked the department to pay for private attorneys. So far, other officials named in the lawsuit haven't indicated to the court whether they've made similar requests.
Metcalfe filed the lawsuit after Justice Department watchdog reports found that department officials under Gonzales weeded out liberal-leaning applicants in favor of conservative ones for various jobs ranging from internships to prosecutor slots and immigration judgeships. In a separate but related report, the two watchdog agencies detailed "substantial evidence" that Republican politics had played a role in several of the firings of the Bush-appointed U.S. attorneys.
The applicants who've sued are all from top-tier law schools, and they allege that their careers were irreparably harmed because they were rejected by the department's honors and summer internship programs. Metcalfe, who's now the executive director of American University Washington College of Law's Collaboration on Government Secrecy, is seeking class action status for the suit.
Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who took over the department after Gonzales resigned during the controversy, has conceded that high-ranking Justice Department officials failed to stop what he described as a "systemic" hiring problem within the department.
Mukasey, however, rejected what he described as "drastic steps" such as prosecuting department lawyers singled out in the reports. He said he'd put a stop to the practices and would attempt to contact applicants who'd been rejected for political reasons and encourage them to reapply for other jobs.
The department sent out letters notifying applicants of the opportunity, but gave them only weeks to respond, according to its Web site. The Web site said that applicants were interviewed last month, but Miller wouldn't say how many people responded.
In court papers, Metcalfe criticized the department's handling of the letters. Several of the rejected applicants contacted him after receiving them, worried that if they agreed to be re-interviewed they might lose their right to participate in a class action lawsuit. Metcalfe questioned why the department hadn't informed the applicants about the suit.