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On April 10, Attorney General Michael Mukasey sat down in the busy basement cafeteria at Main Justice and ate lunch by himself. “Nobody came over, which I felt kind of bad about,” says Mukasey, adding that an FBI agent assigned to his security detail told him he was a “very intimidating presence” and “nobody is just going to come over and hang out with the AG.” Mukasey has more to worry about than just hanging out with the rank and file. The Justice Department, in some ways, is still trying to recover from one of its worst periods since the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s. Five months into his short tenure, Mukasey says his goals are modest. “People say, �Well, you want to leave your mark on the Justice Department?’” Mukasey says. He tells them, “No, I want to leave the Justice Department unscathed.” Since his arrival in November, Mukasey has made a number of decisions to overturn policies or programs put in place by Alberto Gonzales with an eye toward liberating the department from political influences. He has curtailed communications between the department and the White House about ongoing investigations. He’s made several hires at the top of the department that have been well-received inside and outside of the department. And he’s gone out of his way to note the work of some divisions — namely Civil Rights — that aren’t traditionally given much comfort during Republican administrations. It also helps that he hasn’t had major scandals or controversies erupt around him. “Generally, the morale is better around the department since he’s been here,” says a veteran trial attorney in the Tax Division. In fact, if there is any true disagreement between Mukasey and his troops, it’s over how badly the department had fallen in the first place. “It’s not a question of coming into a broken department and repairing it,” Mukasey says. “That was largely — forgive the word — a myth, and I think in part due to controversy surrounding people who are no longer here.” OUT OF THE WAY One of the first differences career employees notice in Mukasey is that he’s not as visible in the halls of Main Justice as his predecessor. Gonzales was known for glad-handing people in the hallways and showing up unannounced in divisions and sections, often with a photographer in tow. At times, Gonzales would walk into an office to find someone with his feet perched atop a desk and reading material unrelated to work. By contrast, Mukasey does not make surprise visits, preferring to address employees in group settings. “What I try to do is make it known to them how much I appreciate what they do and to try to kind of make their jobs easier, not harder, by staying out of the way,” Mukasey says. In addition to the regular trips to the dining hall, Mukasey also holds weekly brown bag lunches with personnel scattered throughout the department’s 40 components. “I try to make sure that I’m meeting not just with the political appointees and top brass but also with people who are doing the work,” he says. Some of Mukasey’s work has been made easier because of subtle management changes that have occurred under his watch, former DOJ employees say. For example, the Civil Rights Division, which suffered from years of friction between political appointees and career staff — usually over differences in the direction of voter-fraud and voter-ID initiatives — has settled down now that one of its last polarizing figures, voting rights section chief John Tanner, has moved on. Tanner, who moved to another Civil Rights Division post in December after apologizing for comments he made about minority voters, left the department this month to work at the Alabama Law Institute. He declined to comment. Toby Moore, a Justice redistricting expert in the voting section who left in 2006 and is now a researcher at nonprofit RTI International, says that Tanner’s departure means “that the grown-ups are back in charge.” In public speeches and interviews, Mukasey frequently lauds the division’s historical significance, calling it “one of the defining institutions” of the department. Similarly, DOJ Pride, an organization representing gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender employees, credits Mukasey with reversing past practices of former AGs Gonzales and John Ashcroft that it says were unfair. Shortly after he arrived, Mukasey said DOJ Pride could post its fliers on bulletin boards, reach out to its members via e-mail, and hold its annual ceremonies in the Great Hall. In another area, Mukasey last month sent out a reminder to all personnel that there should be no political interference in prosecutions and to be mindful of the timing of election-year investigations. He also delivered the same message to U.S. attorneys, both in a telephone conference call shortly after he took over and in a recent speech during an annual gathering of U.S. attorneys. U.S. Attorney Robert O’Neill of the Middle District of Florida, who was part of the November conference call with Mukasey, remembers the attorney general telling the 93 U.S. attorneys: “The only thing I’m going to ask is that you follow the evidence and the law where it leads you.” Mukasey has also taken his message on the road. For example, between January and March, Mukasey traveled on official trips to Mexico, Iraq, Qatar, Turkey, Guant�namo Bay in Cuba, Germany, Slovenia, England, and Canada. Gonzales and Ashcroft visited three countries each during their first few months in office. RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME Former high-ranking officials who have worked alongside him also give Mukasey high marks for bringing stability to the ranks. “There’s no question in my mind that he’s the right man in the right place at the right time,” says Craig Morford, a career prosecutor who stepped down as acting deputy attorney general last month to become chief compliance officer at Cardinal Health Inc. in Ohio. Morford, who served as DAG for two months under Gonzales and nearly another two months with acting Attorney General Peter Keisler, says Mukasey is not afraid to take uncomfortable and tough positions. Some of those decisions have included who to appoint to lead the CIA tapes destruction investigation, defining the department’s position in the Supreme Court case on the District of Columbia’s gun ban, and issuing guidelines for the use of corporate monitors in plea deals with private companies. Despite shoring up support from within, Mukasey has yet to win over critics outside of the department who say the attorney general will be remembered for his unwavering views on waterboarding, warrantless surveillance, and expanded presidential powers. “He’ll simply be perceived as one of those attorneys general that have put the White House policy goals ahead of the law,” says Nancy Baker, a professor at New Mexico State University who researches U.S. attorneys general and wrote a book about Ashcroft’s tenure.
Pedro Ruz Gutierrez can be contacted at [email protected].

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