MARY CLARE JALONICK Associated Press Writer WASHINGTON
Montana U.S. Attorney Bill Mercer is briefly mentioned but not admonished in an internal report released Monday that says politics illegally entered into hiring decisions at the Justice Department. The report criticizes Monica Goodling, a top aide to former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and department liaison to the White House, for violating federal law and Justice Department policy by discriminating against job applicants who weren't Republican or conservative loyalists. Mercer, who was working at the Justice Department as a deputy to Gonzales, is mentioned as a gobetween in a few examples given by investigators. In one example, an official told Mercer in an e-mail that he thought highly of one candidate. Mercer replied that another official "says she's a big D," or Democrat. In another example, Mercer had asked a department official to ask a candidate if she would "feel comfortable working in an office comprised of people with a different political affiliation," the report said. The report found no wrongdoing by Mercer. In an interview Monday, Mercer said in both of those situations he had advocated for the employees. "After joining the office, they (both) served in the Office of the Deputy Attorney General during the remainder of my tenure there," he said, declining further comment. A separate report released by the department's inspector general's office in June was more critical of Mercer, although there was no evidence of deliberate misconduct. That report, which focused on the hiring of entry-level attorneys and interns, concluded Mercer did not "adequately address the concerns that were brought to his attention" by senior department officials that politics may have been involved in some hiring decisions. That report also cited an e-mail that Mercer wrote to another official who had asked him about a candidate from Montana who had applied for an entry-level job there. "His law review article appears to favor reintroduction of wolves on federal lands, a very controversial issue here which pits environmentalists against lots of other interests, including virtually all conservative and moderate thinkers," Mercer wrote. "I know of better candidates through our internship and clerkship programs who have applied to the honors program." Mercer worked in Washington for the department on a temporary basis while he continued to serve as Montana's U. S. attorney. He was nominated by President Bush to be the department's No. 3 official under Gonzales, but he asked that his nomination be withdrawn in June 2007 amid political furor surrounding the department's firings of several U. S. attorneys. Gonzales later stepped down. Documents released as part of a separate congressional inquiry into the firings indicated Mercer was not intimately involved in planning the firings, but he tried to quell the controversy they created.