Democratic leaders in Congress are urging Attorney General Michael Mukasey to disclose the details of a Justice Department agreement to pay a private attorney to defend his predecessor, Alberto Gonzales, against allegations that he encouraged his subordinates to weigh politics in department hiring.
The agreement, reported last week by McClatchy, stems from a lawsuit filed on behalf of eight law students, who say they were rejected from two Justice Department programs based on political or ideological affiliations. The suit came on the heels of a June report by the Justice Department’s two watchdogs, which concluded that officials weeded out certain candidates with liberal-leaning resumes in violation of department policies and civil service law.
According to McClatchy, the Justice Department has agreed to pay $200 an hour or $24,000 a month (a maximum of 120 billable hours) for Gonzales’ defense. White & Case’s George Terwilliger III has been representing Gonzales in the Justice Department investigations, but today Schertler & Onorato's Vincent Cohen Jr., Peter Taylor, and Lisa Fishberg filed notice of appearance on Gonzales' behalf. The plaintiffs are represented by Daniel Metcalfe, a professor at American University Washington College of Law and a former director of the Justice Department's Office of Information and Privacy.
Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairmen of the House and Senate judiciary committees, wrote a letter to Mukasey today, asking him to describe the terms of the fee arrangement; to disclose whom in the department approved it and on what basis; and to say whether the department has agreed to cover the legal expenses of other officials named in the lawsuit.
Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said in a statement that "officials are often represented by private counsel at Department expense, but the Department does not discuss publicly the basis for such determinations in any individual case."
In this case, Carr said the department so far has agreed to pay private lawyers to represent Gonzales and Louis DeFalaise, the director of the Office of Attorney Recruitment and Management, who is also named in the lawsuit.
Lawyers from the Justice Department's Civil Division typically represent department employees who are sued in connection with their official actions, but federal regulations allow the department to pay for a private attorney in some circumstances. The department can decline such requests if the attorney general “determines that the employee’s actions do not reasonably appear to have been performed within the scope of his employment” or that “representation is not in the interest of the United States.”
Click here for a copy of the department's retention agreement.