Grassley: Why were ‘racist’ acts tolerated at Justice Department?

Vexed by ‘culture of harassment’ in Voting Rights section

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A senior Republican in Congress said Wednesday that he wants to know why Justice Department employees whose “hostile, racist and inappropriate behavior” was documented in a new report — including one who admitted lying to the department’s office of inspector general — are still employed.

Sen. Chuck Grassley’s questions came a day after Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz chronicled in a report how racially charged ideological divisions hampered the Civil Rights Division, which is overseen by an assistant attorney general who President Obama is considering for labor secretary.

The long-awaited report, spawned by the dismissal of a voter harassment complaint against the New Black Panther Party, takes issue with the working atmosphere at the Voting Rights section that falls under Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez. The report’s revelations are certain to surface during Mr. Perez’s confirmation process, including information that his own testimony to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights regarding the New Black Panther case was incomplete.

While the report said investigators did not find that Mr. Perez intentionally misled the commission, he was testifying as a Justice Department witness and should have sought in advance more details from others about the nature and extent of the participation of political employees at Justice in the decision to dismiss the New Black Panther complaint, a ruling that sparked considerable public debate.

The report says Mr. Perez knew political appointees were involved in the decision and acknowledged to the IG’s office that he expected questions about it would arise during his testimony.

Perez’s acknowledgment, in his statements on behalf of the department, that political appointees were briefed on and could have overruled this decision did not capture the full extent of that involvement,” the report says, noting that Mr. Perez left out information that Associate Attorney General Thomas J. Perrelli and a deputy associate attorney general were involved in the decision to drop the New Black Panther case — allegations the Justice Department at first denied.

Mr. Grassley said the IG’s report outlines long-standing problems and politicizing within the Civil Rights Division dating back to President Clinton and continuing through the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. The investigation on the enforcement of voting rights laws began in the wake of the dismissal of the New Black Panther case.

But the veteran Iowa lawmaker noted that “little to nothing has been done” to correct the problems, adding that the new report outlines “some egregious findings over the years that I find hard to believe have never been dealt with,” including what Mr. Grassley called “an inherent culture of harassment against conservatives in the Civil Rights Division.”

The IG’s report says polarization within the Voting Rights section had been exacerbated by the question of whether voting rights laws that were enacted in response to discrimination against blacks and other minorities also should be used to challenge improper voting practices harming white voters.

The report says disputes were ignited when the division’s leadership decided to pursue particular cases or investigations on behalf of white victims, and more recently when the division leadership stated it would focus on “traditional” civil rights cases on behalf of racial or ethnic minorities who have been the historical victims of discrimination.

The report says some career employees in the Voting Rights section contributed significantly to the atmosphere of polarization and distrust by harassing other career employees due, at least in part, to their political ideology or for positions taken on particular cases. It said the behavior included outward hostility, snide and mocking emails, and accessing the attorney’s electronic documents on the Voting Rights section shared drive without his permission.

In a statement Tuesday, Mr. Perez said “a number of troubling incidents” noted in the inspector general’s report “have no place in the department, and we have taken steps to prevent similar incidents from recurring.” He said voting rights enforcement is a particularly important area in which to assure professionalism and impartiality and “we recognize the need to continue taking additional steps to maintain and strengthen the culture of the Voting Section and to foster a work environment that is as collegial and healthy as possible.”

Mr. Grassley said that despite the release by the IG’s office of three reports about politicized hiring within the Civil Rights Division, investigators still found problems.

“Future hiring within the Civil Rights Division needs to value intellectual diversity to put to rest any perception that employment is based on politics,” he said. “Given the Inspector General’s findings of flawed criteria used to hire attorneys, Congress should demand that future hiring by the division not be so skewed that it leads to hiring almost exclusively liberal attorneys at the expense of candidates with ‘stellar academic credentials and litigation experience.’

“It’s going to take a new kind of leadership to rid the Justice Department of the politicization and polarization of the Civil Rights Division,” he said.

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