A new audit concludes that rookie attorneys with Republican roots got interviewed for plum Justice Department jobs while their liberal-leaning counterparts got passed over.

The Justice Department audit released Tuesday found that a screening program installed in 2002 weeded out job applicants who had liberal or Democratic ties. Improper use of the screening program peaked in 2006, when politics and ideology disqualified what the audit called a significant number of newly graduated lawyers and summer interns seeking jobs.

The long-awaited report confirms widespread criticism last year that the once fiercely independent Justice Department was victim to political meddling by the Bush administration. The scandal led to the resignation last September of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

"Many qualified candidates were deselected by the screening committee because of their perceived political or ideological affiliations" in 2006, the audit concludes.

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It found that such disqualifications "constituted misconduct and also violated the department's policies and civil service law that prohibit discrimination in hiring based on political or ideological affiliation."

Two of the people who ran the job applicant screening program in 2006 no longer work at Justice, however, and "are no longer subject to discipline by the department for their actions," the report found.

Democrats quickly seized on the report to bludgeon the Bush administration for playing politics with law and order.

"Yet again, the department has been putting politics where it doesn't belong," House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., said in a statement. "When it comes to the hiring of nonpartisan career attorneys, our system of justice should not be corrupted by partisan politics. It appears the politicization at Justice was so pervasive that even interns had to pass a partisan litmus test."

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., called the audit "troubling" and said he expects to see more evidence later "on the extent to which the Bush administration has allowed politics to affect and infect the department's priorities."

The audit is the first of several reports to be issued this year looking at how deeply politics seeped into the Justice Department during the Bush administration. Internal Justice watchdogs -- at the department's Office of Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility -- also are looking at the firing of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006 and management problems by Gonzales during his two years as attorney general.

Gonzales' successor, Attorney General Michael Mukasey, said he agrees with all the audit's recommendations to prevent politics from influencing the screening process -- and has already moved on them.

"I have also made clear, and will continue to make clear, that the consideration of political affiliations in the hiring of career department employees is impermissible and unacceptable," Mukasey said in a statement.