WASHINGTON – The White House on Thursday tapped a Chicago federal judge to assist Attorney General Michael Mukasey in overhauling the Justice Department as a new report described lagging public confidence in the agency following months of upheaval.
If U.S. District Judge Mark Filip is confirmed as deputy attorney general, two former federal jurists will hold the two top Justice Department jobs. Mukasey is a retired district judge from Manhattan.
Filip's nomination was one of five the White House announced in an effort to fill more than a dozen vacant leadership posts across the department. The vacancies have had "a negative effect on the Justice Department, and in fact, that is one thing that we agree with Senate Democrats about," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said, urging the Senate to confirm the nominees swiftly.
"We now have an attorney general who is in place, and the nominations that we have made today are individuals who are well-qualified," Perino said. "And there is no reason that their confirmations should be held up."
A spurt of high-level resignations followed months of accusations that the once fiercely independent Justice Department was improperly allowing politics to seep into decisions about prosecuting cases and hiring career attorneys.
In an annual report released Thursday, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said the vacancies contributed to a crisis of confidence that the agency needs to overcome.
"The department has faced significant criticism of its actions and endured a great deal of turmoil during the past several months," Fine's report said. "We believe that this situation, coupled with numerous vacancies in senior positions, creates a challenge for the new attorney general to re-establish public confidence in the independence and integrity of the department."
Other top challenges facing the department, according to Fine's report, include concerns about national security, properly managing its finances and grant awards, violent crime and civil rights. It was the first year that the report described the lack of public confidence in the Justice Department as a major challenge.
It likely will take weeks, if not months, before the Senate confirms the nominees. They include:
—Kevin O'Connor as associate attorney general, the department's No. 3 job. O'Connor, the U.S. attorney in Connecticut, has been serving since this summer as the attorney general's chief of staff.
—Gregory G. Katsas as the assistant attorney general overseeing civil cases. Katsas has been serving as the associate attorney general for several months.
—Grace Chung Becker as the assistant attorney general for the civil rights division. Becker has been a deputy in that office since last year.
—Nathan Hochman, a private attorney who has served as a federal prosecutor, as assistant attorney general for tax issues.
Filip, 41, was ranked first among federal judges for integrity and professionalism in a 2006 poll of Chicago-area attorneys. He will replace acting Deputy Attorney General Craig Morford, an affable career Justice Department prosecutor who temporarily stepped into the job after Paul McNulty resigned last summer.
Filip served four years on the bench after five years as a partner in the Chicago office of law firm Skadden, Arps, Meagher & Flom. He also worked for four years as an assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago, where he received a Justice Department award for his successful prosecution of seven corrupt police officers.
"He is a man of extreme integrity, intelligence and judgment, energy and commitment," said Wayne Whalen, a partner at Skadden who said he has known Filip for 20 years.