There is a scandal at the Department of Justice, but it's not the one you think.

U.S. attorneys are political appointees who serve at the pleasure of the president. They can be hired and fired for any reason, or none whatsoever. The recent dismissal of eight of these appointees is not a scandal.

What is scandalous, however, is the incompetence displayed by other political appointees. The firings were done with little intelligence or judiciousness. Some attorneys were fired without replacements at the ready or without having first consulted their home-state senators. When the firings became a story, instead of simply asserting his right to make these calls, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales bad-mouthed his former employees. In so doing, Gonzales severely undercut their employment prospects and all but forced them to fight back.

From whence does such incompetence spawn? There's more than enough blame to go around. But even so, one is struck by the figure of Monica Goodling, the attorney general's senior counsel and White House liaison. Goodling, who has recently taken a leave of absence from Justice, was party to the firings. Last week, when asked to appear before Congress, she chose to take the Fifth Amendment. (Disclosure: My wife was a colleague of Goodling's at the Department of Justice between 2002 and 2003 and now works at the FBI, which is a branch of the Department of Justice. The opinions in this column, notwithstanding, are all mine, not my wife's.)

Goodling's background is curious. Now 33, she graduated from Messiah College, an evangelical Christian school, in 1995. After a year at the American University Washington College of Law, she enrolled at Pat Robertson's Regent University Law School in 1996 - the year it received full accreditation from the American Bar Association. She graduated from Regent in 1999. That November, Goodling went to work for the Republican National Committee as a junior research analyst in the opposition research shop. When her boss, Barbara Comstock, left the RNC to head the Office of Public Affairs in the Ashcroft Justice Department, Goodling went with her.

After spending two years in Public Affairs, Goodling was detailed to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Virginia for a two-year stint in order to get the "field experience" typically required for the attorney general counsel's job. She served only six months. (The head of EDVA at the time was Paul McNulty, who, having since become a deputy attorney general, also played a role in the firing of the eight U.S. attorneys.)

According to my research, Goodling was the lead attorney on three felony cases while at EDVA. All three ended in plea agreements; none was of particular importance. To give a sense of the magnitude of her work, the highest-level defendant was sentenced to four months in jail; the other two were given three years of supervised release - one of these also received a $100 special assessment. Nevertheless, upon her return to Justice, Goodling assumed the senior counsel and White House liaison posts. So much for the best and the brightest.

Of course, that's not completely fair. There's nothing wrong with attending fourth-tier schools. The value of college is vastly overrated, and lots of smart people don't go to Harvard. But when you look at the rest of Goodling's bio, it is not obvious why she was participating in serious, senior-level decisions about the hiring and firing of U.S. attorneys.

Take, for instance, Carol Lam. She graduated cum laude from Yale, attended Stanford Law, and clerked for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. After serving as an assistant U.S. attorney in the 1980s, Lam was appointed to the bench in the San Diego Superior Court, before becoming a U.S. attorney in 2002. She is a past recipient of the Attorney General's Award for Distinguished Service. This is the woman whom Monica Goodling - Messiah, Regent, RNC - was working to help remove.

This is not the first time an unqualified appointee has embarrassed the Bush administration. There have been embarrassing appointments at all levels. The New Republic compiled many of these in a feature dubbed "Hack Watch." Some of the highlights: Patrick Rhode, a local TV anchor and Bush advance man who was appointed as the acting deputy director of FEMA; John Pennington, who received his bachelor's from an unaccredited correspondence school just before being appointed as the Region 10 director of FEMA; Israel Hernandez, a young University of Texas grad who jumped on the Bush gubernatorial campaign in 1994 and rode a string of assistant jobs around Bush until 2005, when he was appointed the "assistant secretary for trade promotion and director general of the U.S. & foreign commercial service" at the Commerce Department.

Of course there are many smart, dedicated people working as political appointees for Bush. And every administration has its share of people who find their way into jobs for which they have no qualifications - that's the nature of the patronage system.

The gamble patrons make is that it's worth rewarding unqualified loyalists because they will be hidden in the bureaucracy and never become important enough to draw attention. But the Bush administration has lost this wager more times than is becoming; perhaps more times than is conscionable.

What makes the case of Monica Goodling not only unsettling but actually sad, is that put into a job she wasn't qualified for, she participated in bad decisions (i.e., the firings), which then became public - and when the chips were down, she didn't even stay loyal. The president and the attorney general both promised that their employees would come clean with Congress. Other Justice staffers, including McNulty and Kyle Sampson, have at least answered questions.

Goodling, for reasons unclear, took the Fifth - propelling the story forward, increasing the pressure on her boss to resign, and further embarrassing a president who should be using his political capital not to fence with the Senate Judiciary Committee, but to fight a war.

Contact Jonathan V. Last at jlast@phillynews.com.