Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez’s nomination by President Obama as labor secretary has been met with criticism from Republicans and widespread concern among current and former Justice Department attorneys who question whether the Civil Rights Division chief is qualified for the post.
“People should be raising serious questions about this nomination,” said Hans von Spakovsky, a veteran Justice Department lawyer who formerly served as counsel to the division. “This is a man who misled both Congress and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
“He was the focus last week of the most devastating indictment of a federal government agency I have even seen,” he added, noting that the Justice Department’s office of inspector general in a 258-page report documented widespread intimidation, harassment and even threats of violence under Mr. Perez’s leadership.
Mr. von Spakovsky said there are “serious concerns” among career lawyers in the Civil Rights Division about why Justice Department employees whose “hostile, racist and inappropriate behavior” was documented in the IG’s report have not been disciplined while others who disagreed with the agency’s new liberal policies were forced out.
Outline of problems
Similar questions have been raised on Capitol Hill, where Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the IG’s report outlines long-standing problems and politicizing within the Civil Rights Division, but shows that “little to nothing has been done” to correct the problems. He said the report details “some egregious findings over the years that I find hard to believe have never been dealt with.”
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The long-awaited IG report, spawned by the dismissal of a voter harassment complaint against the New Black Panther Party, takes issue with the working atmosphere in the Voting Rights Section, which falls under Mr. Perez’s leadership, and includes information that Mr. Perez’s own testimony to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights regarding the New Black Panther case was incomplete.
The report said that while Mr. Perez did not intentionally misled the commission, he was testifying as a Justice Department witness and should have sought more details about the extent of the participation of political employees in the decision to dismiss the New Black Panther complaint, a ruling that sparked considerable public debate. It said he knew political appointees were involved in the decision and expected questions about it would arise during his testimony.
According to the report, 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 Black Panther case — allegations the Justice Department had denied.
In January 2009, the Voting Rights Section filed a civil complaint in U.S. District Court in Pennsylvania accusing the New Black Panther Party and two of its members of intimidating voters at a Philadelphia polling place during the November 2008 general election with racial insults, slurs and a nightstick. A third party member was accused of directing and endorsing their behavior.
The report also notes, and several career lawyers confirmed, that under Mr. Perez, polarization within the Voting Rights Section was exacerbated by the question of whether laws enacted in response to discrimination against blacks and other minorities also should be used to challenge improper voting practices harming white voters.
Several career attorneys, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution, said Mr. Perez’s rulings often were based on politics rather than the rule of law. For example, they said serious efforts were made to remove Christopher Coates as head of the Voting Rights Section because he had a conservative view of civil rights law and wanted to pursue reverse-discrimination cases while the leadership wanted to focus on “traditional” cases on behalf of racial and language minorities.
The IG’s report said there was no evidence Mr. Coates had declined to implement the decisions or policies of the new administration, despite his admittedly conservative views and his willingness to pursue “reverse-discrimination” cases. Ultimately, Mr. Coates requested and was granted a transfer.
In a March 2011 report by the Commission on Civil Rights, Mr. Coates said he did not think the Justice Department had been truthful in telling the commission about its handling of the Black Panther case. He said department explanations did not “reflect the hostile atmosphere” that existed within the division “against race-neutral enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.” He said the election victory of President Obama allowed those most opposed to “race-neutral enforcement” to move into leadership positions — one of whom, acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King, ordered the dismissal of the Black Panther case.
J. Christian Adams, lead prosecutor in the Black Panther case, told the commission that Justice Department officials instructed Civil Rights Division attorneys “over and over and over again” to ignore cases that involved black defendants and white victims. Mr. Adams, who left the department after the Black Panther case was dismissed, said Justice had “abetted wrongdoing and abandoned law-abiding citizens.”
In a written statement, Mr. Perez said Justice “takes very seriously” any allegations of harassment, mistreatment, unauthorized disclosure of internal information, and other unprofessional conduct. He said “a number of troubling incidents” in the IG’s report “have no place in the department, and we have taken steps to prevent similar incidents from recurring.”
Minnesota case cited
Mr. Grassley also has raised questions about Mr. Perez’s involvement in a “controversial decision to decline intervention by the federal government” in two False Claims Act cases against the city of St. Paul, Minn., in exchange for the city withdrawing its case before the Supreme Court. He said the case, Magner v. Gallagher, likely would have gutted a low-income housing theory favored by Mr. Perez.
“It appears Mr. Perez may be at the heart of a decision by the Justice Department to make a quid pro quo deal with the city of St. Paul, Minn., that ultimately led to the American taxpayer potentially losing hundreds of millions of dollars by declining to intervene in a False Claims Act case that career attorneys had signed off on,” the lawmaker said.
Three House members — Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee; Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee; and Rep. Patrick T. McHenry, North Carolina Republican and chairman of the House Oversight financial services subcommittee — said the Justice Department refused to intervene in a case that had the potential to return more than $180 million in damages to the U.S. treasury.
They said they were “shocked to learn” that Mr. Perez — over the objections of career Justice Department attorneys — had enticed the city to drop its lawsuit that he “did not want decided by the Supreme Court.” They said Mr. Perez was concerned that a decision in the city’s favor “would dry up the massive mortgage lending settlements his division was obtaining by suing banks for housing discrimination based on disparate effects rather than any proof of intent to discriminate.”
Documents reviewed by Mr. Issa’s committee show that Mr. Perez obtained St. Paul’s agreement to drop its appeal in exchange for an agreement by Justice not to join a fraud lawsuit against the city.
Career attorneys in the Justice Department’s Civil Fraud Section had recommended the case be pursued, citing the city’s behavior as a “particularly egregious example” of false certifications. On Oct. 7, 2011, the Department of Housing and Urban Development concurred in the recommendation as did the U.S. attorney’s office in Minnesota.
Committee investigators wrote, “As Mr. Perez labored to force a reversal, emails show career department attorneys confused and frustrated. … ‘Weirdness’ they call it.”