A former candidate for the Justice Department's honors program is suing for $100,000 in damages, alleging Justice officials violated his rights and those of others when they brought political bias into vetting honors-program applications.
The class action by Sean Gerlich filed yesterday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia is the first suit resulting from an internal Justice report issued last week that says two former Justice officials illegally screened applicants to the honors and summer intern programs.
The two officials were Esther Slater McDonald, then counsel to the associate attorney general and now an associate at Seyfarth Shaw, and Michael Elston, then chief of staff to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty and now a partner at McGuireWoods.
Gerlich's suit says the department politicized the selection process, mishandled the applications and failed to maintain the records, all in violation of the Privacy Act, the Civil Service Reform Act and the Federal Records Act. In addition, the suit claims violations of the First and 14th Amendments.
Gerlich says he was rejected because of his liberal affiliations, which officials dug up through Internet searches.
The DOJ report, issued June 24, found that hundreds of applicants were turned down in 2002 and 2006, after officials under Attorney General John Ashcroft put political appointees in charge of the process. Data analysis by the Office of Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility, for example, showed that those with liberal leanings were more than three times more likely to be rejected than their conservative counterparts in 2006.
Daniel Metcalfe, Gerlich’s attorney and a Washington College of Law professor at American University, says his client was upset at being turned down in 2006 because he had received good marks during his previous stint as a Justice summer intern. In fact, Metcalfe says, his client was a law clerk to an unidentified chief in one of the department’s 40 components.
“This is a guy who had every reason to believe that he was going to work for the government like he did the previous summer, that he would start his career there. And then this happened,” says Metcalfe, who worked at Justice for more than 35 years and retired in 2007 as head of the department’s Office of Information and Privacy. “He was shocked. He was angry. ... This is what he wanted to do."
Metcalfe says Gerlich was “disgracefully deprived of the opportunity to do what he had planned to do, [which was] to return to the Justice Department as an attorney and serve his country.”
Finding no job upon graduation from the University of Georgia law school, Gerlich moved to Belgium last year. He now works as an associate for a law firm in Brussels.