A former Justice Department official told Main Justice that the attorney behind the controversial New Black Panther Party voter intimidation case was hired in the Civil Rights Division Voting Section under a process the DOJ Inspector General later determined was improperly influenced by politics.
Joseph Rich, the former chief of the Civil Rights Division’s Voting Section and a 36-year employee of the Department of Justice, said that shortly before he left the DOJ in 2005 he received a call from Bradley Schlozman, then a Deputy Assistant Attorney General who later became acting Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Division.
Rich was later one of several employees who were quoted in a Justice Department Inspector General’s report, which concluded the hiring process used by Schlozman was improperly politicized. Rich, a liberal-leaning critic of the Civil Rights Division management during the George W. Bush administration, also wrote about his experiences for The Los Angeles Times.
Rich said Schlozman asked him to attend an interview with J. Christian Adams, a solo practitioner from Alexandria, Va., who had worked for the Secretary of State in South Carolina. Adams had also volunteered for the Republican National Lawyers Association, a GOP-funded group that sought to draw attention to voting fraud.
Adams did not have an extensive background in civil rights, Rich said, but may have had limited voting rights experience from his time in South Carolina. “He is exhibit A of the type of people hired by Schlozman,” Rich said.
Rich said he sat in on the interview, but Schlozman asked most of the questions. There was no discussion of Adams’ political background at the meeting, according to Rich. Adams was offered the position shortly thereafter, and Rich said he doesn’t believe anyone else was interviewed for the job.
“I was invited to the interview but was never asked for a recommendation,” Rich said.”This was an example of the way things were being done. There’s no evidence that this was a normal hiring process.” As a supervisor, Rich said, he normally would have been involved in hiring decisions.
Contacted by Main Justice, Adams did not dispute Rich’s account, but said that during the interview he discussed his background representing indigent clients.
The Inspector General’s report doesn’t name Adams, but said that Schlozman hired 99 attorneys, 63 of whom had conservative or Republican affiliations and only 2 of whom had liberal affiliations.
Adams was one of the first hires in the Voting Section in years, as hiring was virtually at a standstill for several years during the Bush administration, Rich said. Rich left the Justice Department before Adams started his job.
The Obama administration’s transition team compiled a report on the division, which found that 236 civil rights lawyers left the division from 2003 to 2007. Many were made to feel unwelcome and left, some former Civil Rights Division attorneys have said. Others took an unusual buyout offer that critics have said was extended to encourage perceived liberals to leave the division.
“It is evident that the [Voting] Section, at times at the behest of DOJ’s highest ranking officials, prioritized a voter fraud prevention and prosecution agenda designed to suppress minority voter turnout; and decisions on some [Voting Rights Act] Section 5 submissions were crafted to serve partisan ends,” the transition report said.
Adams quit his job with the Justice Department earlier this year, citing the DOJ’s handling of a November 2008 incident at a Philadelphia polling place and its refusal to allow him to testify before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights about it. Now a free agent, Adams is slated to appear on Tuesday before the commission to discuss the case.
Two members of the anti-white fringe group stood outside the majority-black polling place in military-style garb, one of them holding a night stick.
Adams helped compile a civil voter intimidation lawsuit against the men, based on a rarely used section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But the Obama DOJ later dismissed the case against all but one defendant, citing a lack of a pattern of intimidation, the fact that one of the Black Panthers was a registered Democratic poll watcher and that lack of evidence that the leadership of the organization condoned the one New Black Panthers behavior. The DOJ obtained an injunction against the Black Panther who carried the nightstick.
Adams has since become a vocal critic of the decision to dismiss most of the case, saying in a recent two-part interview on Fox News that racial and political motivations were at play.
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When the George W. Bush Justice Department filed a civil complaint against members of the New Black Panther Party in January, it invoked a rarely used provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act to allege voter intimidation.
It was the second time the Bush DOJ filed suit under Section 11 (b) of the landmark civil rights legislation – both times targeting black defendants.
The common denominator in these unusual applications of Section 11 (b) is J. Christian Adams, a line attorney at the Justice Department who compiled the Black Panthers case and also worked on a 2005 federal lawsuit against black officials in Mississippi accused of discriminating against whites.
Adams is a career Voting Section lawyer. He is also a foot soldier in the conservative movement, hired into the Justice Department during the Bush administration under a process the department’s Inspector General concluded was improperly politicized.
Adams’s background helps explain how a relatively minor incident in Philadelphia during the 2008 presidential election involving two members of an anti-white fringe group blossomed into a political controversy for the Obama administration.
Adams previously had volunteered for the Republican National Lawyers Association, an off-shoot of the Republican National Committee that trains lawyers to fight on the often racially tinged frontlines of voting rights, and had been a Republican poll watcher in Florida for the 2004 presidential campaign.
As a Virginia lawyer, he once filed an ethics complaint in Florida against the brother of Hillary Clinton, and reviewed a manuscript of a book that questions the contemporary need for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act that he is tasked with enforcing.
More recently, Adams asked a question at a meeting of the conservative Federalist Society in Washington that appeared skeptical of affirmative action, wrote a piece for the American Spectator that likened President Barack Obama’s world view to that of Nazi appeasers and argued on a conservative blogging network that health care reform is a threat to liberty.
Hired in 2005 by Bradley Schlozman, a Bush-era political appointee who drove out veteran Civil Rights Division attorneys perceived to be liberal, Adams appears to be one of the “right-thinking Americans” with conservative affiliations that Schlozman improperly seeded throughout the bureaucracy.
Civil service protections make his removal difficult, and Adams now is emblematic of the challenges facing Attorney General Eric Holder and Civil Rights Division chief Thomas Perez, who have vowed to “restore” the division to its historic mission of enforcing anti-discrimination laws protecting minorities, while adapting to new challenges.
Republican members of the House asked for an investigation into whether politics played a role in the dismissal of the case and asked GOP senators over the summer to delay Perez’s confirmation over the matter.
When asked about Adams’s role in the Black Panther case, Perez said in a briefing with reporters last week: ”I don’t want to get in the business of speculating as to why somebody brought something at what point.”
The complaint Adams drafted was also signed by Christopher Coates, chief of the Voting Section, and then-acting Assistant Attorney General Grace Chung Becker, a Bush political appointee who failed to win Senate confirmation over Democrats’ concerns she wasn’t committed to enforcing anti-discrimination laws to protect minorities.
“We clearly communicate our expectations [to Civil Rights Division attorneys]. If you meet those expectations that are transparent, then we want you to continue as long as you want to be there,” Perez added, in another session with reporters after a speech at the National Press Club last Friday. “And if you don’t, we hold you accountable.”
Adams compiled the lawsuit against the Black Panthers, two of whom stood outside a majority-black Philadelphia polling place in November 2008 in military-style fatigues, one of them carrying a nightstick. After the Obama DOJ dismissed of the most of the complaint in May, outraged conservatives called for investigations into whether politics played an improper role in the decision.
“That looks more like some sort of street fight than it does a polling place,” David Norcross, chairman of the Republican National Lawyers Association, said of a widely viewed video showing the incident.
Adams referred questions about his casework to the DOJ’s Office of Public Affairs. A spokesman said the public affairs office doesn’t normally provide a log of cases on which a particular attorney has worked.
A review of documents on the Civil Rights Division Web site indicates that more recently, Adams worked on complaint filed in March under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, under the Obama administration, alleging the town of Lake Park, Florida, denied black voters an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice. In October, the Southern District of Florida federal court entered a consent decree and judgment changing the way the town elected its commissioners.
Turning the Voting Rights Act on its head
The Section 11 (b) civil authority under which the Black Panthers lawsuit was filed is rarely used, since criminal acts of voter intimidation are usually referred for prosecution.
The first known 11 (b) case since the early days of the Voting Rights Act came in 1992, when the government filed suit against North Carolina Republicans and the campaign of then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) for sending threatening postcards to 100,000 mostly black voters with misleading information about election laws.*
There were no more 11 (b) cases until 2005. Then, the Bush administration filed a voter intimidation lawsuit against black officials in Noxubee County, Miss., alleging systematic discrimination against white voters. It marked the first time the DOJ had used authority of the Voting Rights Act to allege voting discrimination by blacks against whites.
While the government won the Noxubee case and even Bush administration critics agree it had merit, they argue that pursing the case was a misuse of limited department resources. Critics also say the manner in which the Bush DOJ used section 11 (b) turned the spirit of the Voting Rights Act on its head. The 1965 act was passed amid incidents of beatings and harassment in the South by white mobs and Ku Klux Klan members against people demonstrating for black voting rights.
“Sadly, the only two [section 11 (b)] cases that have been brought by the [Bush] department have been on behalf of whites,” J. Gerald Hebert, a former acting chief of the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division, told Main Justice.
The Government Accountability Office, meantime, recently highlighted a Section 11 (b) voter intimidation case that the Bush DOJ chose not to pursue. The case involved allegations that officials in an unidentified state had intimidated black voters.
The GAO didn’t give further details, but Perez said in recent congressional testimony the division had opened an investigation into the incident cited in the report. He declined to elaborate, citing the ongoing probe.
Hebert said in order to pursue a voter intimidation case, there should be depositions from voters who felt intimidated and the actions should be shown to be part of a larger campaign.
The Black Panther complaint provided little evidence to support the government’s allegation that the group conducted a coordinated campaign to intimidate voters, Obama Department of Justice officials have told Republican lawmakers.
“Frankly, the Philadelphia case [against the New Black Panthers] was on shaky ground from the beginning and was largely, I think, filed by the previous administration for the new administration to have to clean up, putting them in a difficult position,” said Hebert, a critic of the Bush administration’s management of the Justice Department who has written extensively about Section 11(b) for his current employer, the Campaign Legal Center.
Spakovsky: ‘political hacks” at DOJ
So far, no voters registered in the majority-black precinct in Philadelphia where the incident occurred have come forward publicly to say they were intimidated. The complaints have come instead from white Republican poll watchers.
The conservative-dominated U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is investigating the DOJ’s handling of the Black Panther case, and Adams has fought to obtain permission to assist its investigation, over objections from his superiors at the Justice Department.
Yet conservatives have raised no questions about the background or possible motivations of Adams, who compiled the case. Instead they have attacked the career DOJ lawyers who recommended dismissing it.
“Those two lawyers, Steve Rosenbaum and Loretta King, are two of the worst political hacks to be found in the career ranks of the Civil Rights Division,” wrote former Bush Civil Rights Division official Hans A. von Spakovsky in an opinion piece for National Review Online.
House Judiciary Committee members Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.) have written letters to the DOJ asking whether it “improperly considered partisan politics” in dismissing the Black Panther case.
Spakovsky worked closely with Schlozman. He helped oversee the Noxubee case in Mississippi and assisted in the controversial purge of veteran lawyers in the division perceived to be liberal. The Democratic-controlled Senate in 2007 refused to confirm Spakovsky as a Federal Election Commission member.
Spakovsky has also worked at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights for commissioner Todd Gaziano, an official at the conservative Heritage Foundation who’s been the driving force behind the push to investigate the Black Panthers matter.
Von Spakovsky told Main Justice said he hadn’t spoken with Adams about the case. “I know Christian just like I know all the lawyers, but I have not talked to him about the case,” he said.
The Obama DOJ, he added, has “not offered any reason to justify its dismissal, which leads you to the obvious conclusion that there were political and other reasons for doing it.”
In fact, Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs Ron Weich has outlined the reasons for the dismissal in letters to Republican members of Congress. Read his response here (scroll down).
I’m Just a Media Guy
On election day in November 2008, a call came into the Philadelphia office of the John McCain for President campaign. Two black men in military-style fatigues and berets were standing outside a polling station. One of them was carrying a nightstick.
Stephen Robert Morse, a young freelance journalist who’d been hired by the local Republican Party to document potential irregularities at the polls, jumped in a car and sped to the apartment building at 1221 Fairmount Street, in a majority black neighborhood of Philadelphia.
“Dude, you got my back?” Morse said to a companion. He walked toward the two members of the New Black Panthers and began speaking for his video.
“Hi, I’m here at 1221 Fairmount in Philadelphia and there’s a guy with a billy club right here,” Morse said. “So, do we have any problems here? What’s going on? Everything okay?”
“Everything’s fine,” said Minister King Samir Shabazz, the Black Panther holding the night stick.
“Okay, I’m just, I’m just making sure,” Morse said.
Shabazz asked Morse to identify himself.
“I’m just a media guy,” Morse said. “I’m with the University of Pennsylvania. Who are you with? Sorry?”
“Ah … security,” Shabazz said. “Just wondering why everybody’s taking pictures, that’s all.”
“I think it may be a little intimidating that you have a stick in your hand, that’s all. I mean, that’s a weapon. I mean, I’m a concerned citizen,” Morse said.
“So are we. That’s why we’re here.”
“Okay, but you have a nightstick.”
“So what? You have a camera phone.”
“I have a camera phone, which is not a weapon,” Morse said.
Only 34 whites live in Precinct 4 in Philadelphia out of a total population of 970, according to census data. But there was a sea of white faces there that day, mainly Republican lawyers who’d come to monitor the polling station in what, since the disputed 2000 presidential election, has become an election-day ritual for both parties.
One of the white Republican poll watchers called police, and the nightstick-wielding Shabazz was shooed away without apparent incident. The other Black Panther, Jerry Jackson, who’d been issued a poll watching certificate by the Philadelphia County Board of Elections, remained.
Although both Shabazz and Jackson had been recorded in an earlier National Geographic documentary calling whites “cracker” and other derogatory terms, no racial epithets were recorded on Morse’s video in Philadelphia.
Then Fox News arrived.
Fox reporter Rick Leventhal interviewed an unidentified Republican poll watcher who told of a more racially charged scene.
The Black Panthers “told us not to come outside, because a black man is going to win this election no matter what,” the unidentified Republican poll watcher said on the Fox camera. “So, as I came back outside to see, the nightstick turns around and says, you know, ‘We’re tired of white supremacy,’ and starts tapping the nightstick in his hand.”
Fox reporter Rick Leventhal said: “The Black Panthers were there to intimidate white voters from coming to this polling location?”
“Or anyone who’s in their way. You know, I don’t know. A guy standing in front of a polling place with a night stick is a factor for all voters. Maybe little old ladies don’t want to walk through that,” the Republican poll watcher said.
The video that Morse made was uploaded to YouTube through a Web site called electionjournal.org, run by a Republican operative named Mike Roman.
Later that evening, Barack Obama won the election, becoming the nation’s first African-American president.
On YouTube, viewers started clicking Morse’s video. It eventually logged more than a 1.2 million views.
Republican poll watchers complain
In January, 13 days before Obama’s inauguration, the Civil Rights Division filed a civil complaint alleging that Shabazz and Jackson hurled “racial insults” and threats at both black and white individuals in Philadelphia, and “made menacing and intimidating gestures” directed at “individuals who were present to aid voters.”
Those “individuals who were present to aid voters” appear to be a reference to the white Republican poll watchers who reported the incident and gave interviews to Fox News. So far, no voters of any race who were registered in that precinct have come forward publicly to say they were intimidated.
The New Black Panther Party made an easy target for Republicans. Characterized as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Shabazz and Jackson had been videotaped by National Geographic for a documentary calling whites “cracker” and other denigrating terms.
The black separatist group takes its inspiration from, but is not related to, the 1960s Black Panthers, the original “black power” movement.
Republicans have suggested the Justice Department dismissed the case because the New Black Panther Party helped get Obama elected. “It just smacks of some kind of a deal or a thank-you payback,” said Norcross of the Republican National Lawyers Association.
But a review of Shabazz’s comments before the election indicate he wasn’t an Obama fan.
“[Obama] is a puppet on a string. I don’t support no black man running for white politics. I will not vote for who will be the next slavemaster,” he told the Philadelphia Daily News days before the election, according to Politico.
The New Black Panther Party could not be reached for comment.
Washington Times “Exclusive”
After the Black Panthers failed to contest the lawsuit earlier this year, a default judgment was entered. The case then went to then-acting Civil Rights Division chief Loretta King for review.
A career DOJ lawyer, King decided one incident didn’t constitute an orchestrated campaign or pattern to deny voting rights, the usual criteria for deploying federal resources in litigation.
She also had concerns about seeking legal action in part based on how the men were dressed, and noted that one of them – Jackson – held an official poll watching certificate, giving him a reason to be on the premises. She recommended dismissal, a decision approved by her supervisor, Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, an Obama political appointee.
The DOJ sought and won an injunction against Shabazz prohibiting him from carrying a weapon at polling stations through Nov. 15, 2012.
On May 29, the Washington Times published an “exclusive” that said Justice Department “political appointees overruled career lawyers” in dismissing the case.
“Career lawyers pursued the case for months, including obtaining an affidavit from a prominent 1960s civil rights activist who witnessed the confrontation and described it as ‘the most blatant form of voter intimidation’ that he had seen, even during the voting rights crisis in Mississippi a half-century ago,” the Times added.
The affidavit came from Bartle Bull, who worked for Robert F. Kennedy’s campaign in New York 40 years ago but has since been better known as a novelist. Bull supported John McCain for president – a fact not noted by the Washington Times.
After the Washington Times piece, Bull popped up in an interview with Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly. “The senior lawyer working on this case, Christian Adams, said to me, ‘if this is not a case of intimidation, nothing is,’” Bull told O’Reilly.
Bull also said he’d heard the Black Panthers in Philadelphia say: “Now you’ll see what it is like to be ruled by a black man, cracker.”
And Rep. Wolf gave a speech on the House floor in July excoriating Holder.
“Martin Luther King did not die to have people in jack boots block polling places,” Wolf said. “I question Eric Holder’s commitment to voting rights.”
Standoff over subpoenas
Now the matter lies in a standoff between the Justice Department and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which has subpoenaed the DOJ for internal communications about the New Black Panther Party case.
The DOJ has resisted complying with the subpoenas, citing a Supreme Court precedent that protects the department’s internal work products from disclosure. But Adams has argued he is obligated to comply with the commission’s inquiry.
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ general counsel, David Blackwood – who like Adams and other staff members on the commission is a Republican National Lawyers Association member – wrote the DOJ on Dec. 18 to say the commission had agreed for now to postpone depositions of DOJ officials.
The commission will set new deposition dates for the department employees in the next few weeks, and may consider subpoenaing other department personnel during the same time.
According to a plan circulated among members of the commission by Todd Gaziano, possible deponents in January and February 2010 include Thomas Perrelli, Loretta King, and civil appellate section chief Diana Flynn. The plan also calls for a hearing in Washington in early 2010.
The commission’s final report is scheduled to be released next summer, in advance of the midterm elections.
Mary Jacoby contributed to this report.
*Experts consulted by Main Justice indicated that the 1992 case was the first Section 11 (b) case they knew about. A reader has pointed out there was a case in 1966, and the language has been updated. While a previous version of this story called the Campaign Legal Center “liberal-leaning,” it is a non-partisan organization whose president served as general counsel for John McCain’s campaign in 2000 and 2008. Adams read the manuscript of, but did not edit, the book on the Voting Rights Act.
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The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has put in place new hiring rules that division leaders say will prevent the type of politicized hiring that an Inspector General’s report concluded took place during the Bush administration.
“It really is based on the following very simple premise, which is to hire the best qualified people, plain and simple,” said Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, head of the Civil Rights Division, in a briefing with reporters yesterday. “We have put in place systems that will ensure that career staff are involved — hiring committees in each section — so that we get the input of career staff.”
The hiring rules, which career staffers helped write, are not permanent and could be changed by future administrations.
Perez said that the Justice Department funding bill signed by President Obama this week will allow the Civil Rights Division to hire 102 new people, the majority of them lawyers, which Perez said will be an important part of the division’s “restoration and revitalization efforts.”
In a January report, the department’s internal watchdogs concluded that Bradley Schlozman, who was a deputy and acting head of the division during the Bush administration, violated federal law in his quest to stock the division with his political allies. During his tenure, Schlozman hired 99 lawyers, according to the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General and the Office of Professional Responsibility. Sixty-three of them had Republican affiliations, two of them were Democrats, and 34 were labeled as “unknown,” according to the report.
One of those lawyers hired by Schlozman in the Voting Section, J. Christian Adams, brought a voter intimidation case against members of the New Black Panther Party in the last days of the Bush administration. His lawyer has been arguing with the Justice Department that Adams has an obligation to follow the directive of a subpoena from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights about the handling of the case.
The Obama transition team’s confidential report on the division, obtained by The New York Times and since cited by Perez in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, showed that 236 civil rights lawyers left from 2003 to 2007. The division has about 350 lawyers, which will increase to more than 400 under the Justice Department’s new budget for fiscal 2010.
A memo describing the new hiring rules posted on the Civil Rights Division Web site is embedded below.
Joe Palazzolo contributed to this story.
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Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez testified on Capitol Hill Thursday about his “agenda of restoration and revitalization” for the Civil Rights Division.
That agenda includes new rules for hiring career civil service lawyers intended to protect the process from politics. Those rules are being finalized, according to Alejandro Miyar, a Justice Department spokesman.
In a statement before the House Judiciary subcommittee on civil rights, Perez said the rules will “ensure that the very best candidates for the job are selected through a process that is conducted fairly, transparently and without any consideration of the candidate’s political view.”
While the cautious Perez didn’t make explicit reference to the George W. Bush administration, committee Democrats filled in the blanks for him.
“The division has been deeply troubled over the past eight years. Career civil rights attorneys were routinely overruled by political appointees,” said Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) chairman of the subcommittee. “Enforcement was in some key areas grossly neglected.”
During the Bush administration, the Civil Rights Division was in turmoil as Bush political appointee Bradley Schlozman drove out career lawyers deemed to be liberal and hired conservatives to replace them.
Schlozman, who served in a variety of posts in the division from 2003 to 2006, broke federal law in taking political and ideological affiliations into account for the career civil service jobs, according to this Justice Department Inspector General report.
Perez testified on the same day the Government Accountability Office released a 180-page report showing a marked declined in enforcement of anti-discrimination and voting rights laws under the administration of George W. Bush. Perez said the Obama administration would not be “picking and choosing” which laws to enforce. (We’ll have a separate story on the GAO report later).
As Democratic members of the committee focused on the GAO report’s findings, Republicans honed in on two of their favorite political targets: the Association for Community Organizers for Reform Now (ACORN) and the New Black Panther Party voter intimidation case that was dismissed by the Obama DOJ in May.
After a half hour of opening statements from committee members, Nadler prepared to introduce Perez, saying “now we can get back to the subject of the hearing, which is the Civil Rights Division and not ACORN.”
Rep. Lamar Smith countered that Democrats were “playing the Bush blame game” instead of overseeing the Obama administration.
Republicans also attacked the notion of hate crimes laws, which Perez has made a top priority for the division. Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) asked Perez if the murders at Fort Hood by alleged shooter Maj. Nidal Hasan would be considered a hate crime because it appeared to be religiously motivated. Perez said he wasn’t involved with the investigation so didn’t comment directly.
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Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, the new chief of the Civil Rights Division, appeared on the Kojo Nnamdi Show Thursday. If you didn’t tune in, click here for a link to the audio file.
Below, we’ve highlighted a section in which Perez discusses hiring in the division — a touchy subject in a component buffeted by turnover and politically motivated personnel decisions during the Bush administration.
But first, a little background.
In a January report, the department’s internal watchdogs concluded that Bradley Schlozman, who was a deputy and acting head of the division during the Bush administration, violated federal law in his quest to stock the division with his political equals. During his tenure, Schlozman hired 99 lawyers, according to the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility. Sixty-three of them had Republican affiliations, two of them were Democrats, and 34 were labeled as “unknown.”
The Obama transition team’s confidential report on the division, obtained by The New York Times, showed that 236 civil rights lawyers left from 2003 to 2007. The division has about 350 lawyers. The Obama administration hopes to add about 50 more.
Here’s the exchange:
Caller: I wanted to know what is going to happen in your division to the people who were hired as a result of political influence or favoritism because they were conservatives?
Perez: Our hiring process is going to be nonpartisan. It is whoever is the most qualified candidate for the job. Our employee review process is going to be similarly nonpartisan. If you are doing the job and doing it well, you will continue to do it. If you are not doing the job, you will be held accountable, whether you came here three years ago or whether you came here 20 years ago. It will be a function of a very transparent process in which people have an opportunity to be heard. But I spoke with the division yesterday, and I said we have a lot of work to do, we need to move forward and do that work. I have great faith in the passion and talent of the career staff. And we will indeed work hard to ensure our review processes are fair…and people who are doing great work will be rewarded and people who are not doing great work are accountable.
Nnamdi: What do you say to people who say, look, the people who follow the traditional civil rights activists in our nation, many of whom sought relief from the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department over the years, even if they’re doing work, even if they are career employees, can generally be considered as politically liberal? So what the Bush administration was simply trying to do was to have some balance among the career employees in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. What you seem to be suggesting is that there’s not likely to be that ideological balance anymore, so we are suspicious.
Perez: That’s not really what I’m saying, Kojo. What I’m saying is that the inspector general report noted that laws were violated, that…inquiries were being made into ideology, things of that nature. Again, when I was on the hiring committee for entry level lawyers in ‘91, ‘92, and ‘93, our charge from Republicans and Democrats was the same: Hire the best qualified people. I don’t care if you’re a Republican, Democrat, Independent, any other party. I care about whether you have the talent, experience and fire in the belly to do the job. And that is what we are going to return to because that was frankly lost all too frequently in the last eight years. And that’s regrettably documented in the IG report.
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The acting U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, Matt Whitworth, has been appointed to a U.S. magistrate judgeship, a U.S. district court announced today.
Whitworth will succeed William A. Knox, who will retire in January. Whitworth, a 20-year veteran of the Western District, has led the office since February.
The Western District hit turbulence during the Bush administration.
Former U.S. Attorney Todd Graves was one of the nine prosecutors fired by the Bush administration. Graves was replaced by Bradley Schlozman, the controversial former Civil Rights Division official who served as interim U.S. Attorney until 2007. (Attorney General Eric Holder recently decided not to prosecute Schlozman for giving misleading testimony to Congress about partisan hiring decisions at the DOJ. Click here to read our story.) Schlozman was succeeded by John F. Wood, who resigned in February after President Obama took office.
Obama has yet to nominate a new U.S. Attorney to lead the office. Patrick McInerney, a Kansas City, Mo. lawyer with Husch Blackwell Sanders, and Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan are possible candidates for the job, according to the Kansas City Business Journal.
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A controversial Bush Justice Department official got a break from Attorney General Eric Holder.
Bradley Schlozman, former Acting Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Division, will not be prosecuted by the Justice Department, according to a letter from Assistant Attorney General Ron Weich to Senate Judiciary Committee member Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Holder affirmed an earlier decision by the District of Columbia U.S. Attorney’s office not to pursue charges against Schlozman related to sworn testimony the Bush official gave before Congress in 2007.
A DOJ Office of Inspector General report concluded last year that Schlozman wasn’t truthful when he told Congress he hadn’t taken politics or ideology into account when hiring career DOJ lawyers. The report said Schlozman referred to liberal applicants for positions as “mold spores,” “commies” and “crazy pinkos.” The report concluded that he was “unsuitable for public service.”
The IG said Schlozman’s partisan hiring standards violated civil service laws intended to keep politics out of career government hiring decisions. The IG referred its findings to the U.S. Attorney office, which decided not to pursue charges. The office was headed by former Bush DOJ official Jeffrey Taylor, but he recused himself from the case. First Assistant Channing Phillips and six career prosecutors made the final call on the case.
“To be clear, nothing in the Attorney General’s determination to sustain the United States Attorney’s decision should be construed as an endorsement of Mr. Schlozman’s improper hiring and personnel-related practices as described in the Final (IG) Report,” Weich wrote in the letter to Schumer.
Holder began a “extensive” review of the U.S. Attorney’s office decision shortly after taking office, Weich said. The Attorney General said at his confirmation hearing that he was alarmed by the behavior of Schlozman described in the IG report.
“The Attorney General firmly believes that providing false statements to Congress cannot and should not be tolerated and should, where provable beyond a reasonable doubt, be prosecuted,” Weich wrote in the letter.
Schlozman lawyer Bill Jordan said in a statement to Main Justice that Holder “made the right decision.”
“Brad is extremely pleased that he has been fully exonerated by this review,” Jordan said.
Schumer, who urged Holder to review the case, told The Associated Press that the attorney general’s decision was “very disappointing.”
“Perjury is often a close call, but in this case it wasn’t. Mr. Schlozman was way over the line,” Schumer told The AP.
Schlozman served in various capacities in the Bush Justice Department before he resigned in 2007. He was an interim U.S. Attorney for Western District of Missouri, Civil Rights Division Deputy Assistant Attorney General and a counsel to Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson.
He is now working for Witchita, Kan. law firm Hinkle Elkouri.
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Charlie Savage has this standout piece is today’s New York Times on the state of the Civil Rights Division and Attorney General Eric Holder’s intention, in his own words, to return to its ”historical mission.”
The shift will mean “a major revival of high-impact civil rights enforcement against policies, in areas ranging from housing to hiring, where statistics show that minorities fare disproportionately poorly,” Savage writes.
The Bush administration strayed from the traditional focus on racial discrimination, focusing instead on areas such as religious discrimination and human trafficking. The Obama administration’s plan is to continue enforcement in those areas as well. The White House has requested funding for 50 more lawyers — enough to do everything.
The House report to the Justice Department’s fiscal year 2010 funding bill includes funds to bring on an additional 51 full-time employees in the Civil Rights Division.
The Justice Department has requested a 2010 budget increase of $15.7 million for the division, an 18 percent increase from the 2009 budget. The House and Senate reports have $145.5 million set aside for the section.
The report from the House Appropriations Committee said:
“The Committee is particularly supportive of the additional resources proposed in past years. The Committee is particularly supportive of the additional resources proposed for the Civil Rights Division to restore its base capacity to enforce civil rights laws; expand its capacity to prosecute and provide litigation support for human trafficking and unsolved civil rights era crimes; carry out its responsibilities associated with the civil rights of institutionalized persons and the access rights of the disabled; and enhance the enforcement of fair housing and fair lending laws.”
The division is also working on a new hiring policy, according to Savage. Panels of career employees, rather than political appointees, would make hiring decisions.
But former Bush administration officials noted that career civil rights lawyers are overwhelmingly left-leaning, so the panels would likely reach the same conclusions as political appointees in the Obama administration.
“In some ways, it’s a masterstroke by them,” Alston & Bird partner Robert Driscoll, a division political appointee from 2001 to 2003, told the Times.
But recharging the division could prove tricky following an era of politicized hiring, orchestrated in large part by Bradley Schlozman, who was a deputy and acting head of the division during the Bush administration. The department’s watchdogs found that Schlozman violated federal law in his quest to stock the division with “right-thinking Americans.”
During his tenure, Schlozman hired 99 lawyers. According to a joint report by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility, 63 of them were Republicans, two of them were Democrats, and 34 were labeled as “unknown.”
Schlozman’s effect on morale was apparent. The Obama transition team’s confidential report on the division, obtained by Savage, shows that 236 civil rights lawyers left from 2003 to 2007. The division has about 350 lawyers.
According to Savage:
Many of their replacements had scant civil rights experience and were graduates of lower-ranked law schools. The transition report says the era of hiring such “inexperienced or poorly qualified” lawyers — who are now themselves protected by civil service laws — has left lasting damage.
“While some of the political hires have performed competently and a number of others have left, the net effect of the politicized hiring process and the brain drain is an attorney work force largely ill-equipped to handle the complex, big-impact litigation that should comprise a significant part” of the division’s docket, the transition report said.
Republicans have volleyed charges of politicization back at Holder’s Justice Department. In particular, DOJ’s decision to downgrade a voter-intimidation lawsuit against the New Black Panther Party (read our previous coverage of the case here and here) stirred House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Lamar Smith (R-Texas) to urge Senate Republicans to put a hold on Civil Rights Division nominee Thomas Perez until DOJ gives Congress more information about the case. And according to Savage, they have.
The delay is holding up reviews of section managers ”installed by the Bush team, including several regarded with suspicion by civil rights advocacy groups,” according to Savage. Top-level career officials may not be transferred to other posts until 120 days after a new agency head is confirmed.
According to the Office of Personnel Management’s “Guide to the Senior Executive Service“:
Career appointees cannot be reassigned involuntarily within 120 days of the appointment of a new agency head, or the appointment of the career appointee’s most immediate supervisor who is a noncareer appointee with the authority to make an initial appraisal of the career appointee’s performance. The intent of this moratorium is to provide a “get acquainted” period to allow the new agency head and noncareer appointees to get to know the career senior executives and their skills and expertise. However, after 120 days, agency managers are free to reassign their career appointees.
Andrew Ramonas contributed to this report.
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The US Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) is scheduled to vote this morning on the nomination of former voting section lawyer Hans Von Spakovsky to the State Advisory Committee for Virginia, reports TPMMuckraker.
The advisory committee is tasked with, as its name implies, advising the commission, which among other things, investigates complaints alleging that citizens are being deprived of their right to vote.
Spakovsky was actually hired by the commission last August as a consultant and temporary full-time employee at the behest of Commissioner Todd Gaziano. Gaziano told TPMMuckraker that he was also one of the people who recommended Spakovsky for the volunteer position with the advisory committee. Gaziano is the Director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Legal and Judicial Studies and has served in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.
Spakovsky, you may recall, was a sidekick to the controversial former head of the Civil Rights Division, Bradley Schlozman, who caused an uproar with his partisan hiring practices. President Bush gave Spakovsky a recess appointment to the Federal Election Commission, but once the recess appointment expired, the Senate refused to confirm him. As a matter of fact, it was then-Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) that put a hold on his Senate confirmation proceeding, prompting Gaziano to call Obama’s opposition “nothing more than fear-mongering with potential liberal voters.”
Career Voting Section lawyers led by Joseph Rich, section chief from 1999 to 2005, wrote to Senate Rules Committee chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and ranking member Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) alleging that Spakovsky “played a major role in the implementation of practices which injected partisan political factors into decision-making on enforcement matters and into the hiring process, and included repeated efforts to intimidate career staff.” You can find the letter here.
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House Judiciary Committee lawyer Elliot Mincberg said today at a forum on prosecution misconduct that Attorney General Eric Holder is considering prosecuting former Acting Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Division Bradley Scholzman, The Blog of Legal Times reported Friday. Holder had previously said at his confirmation hearing he’d review a decision by the District of Columbia U.S. Attorney’s office not to prosecute Schlozman for allegedly lying in sworn testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2007 that he didn’t take political affiliation or ideology into account in DOJ personnel decisions.
We previously reported that a DOJ Inspector General report said Schlozman referred to liberal applicants for positions as “mold spores,” “commies” and “crazy pinkos.” The report concluded that he was “unsuitable for public service.”
Mincberg also said the House Judiciary Committee has obtained a “pretty good number of internal White House memos” as part of its probe into the U.S. Attorney firings of 2006, The BLT reported.
He said the memos provide more details on the firing of the nine U.S. Attorneys under the watch of then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, according to The BLT. He added that the documents are confidential for now. But Mincberg said the closed-door testimonies of former White House Counsel Harriet Miers and former Bush aide Karl Rove will be made public, according to The BLT. Miers met with the House Judiciary Committee this month. The panel has yet to say when it will meet with Rove.
“(The investigation) has already demonstrated, although it is not yet done, that there were clear improper political influence in the decisions being made by a Republican administration to fire Republican U.S. attorneys,” Mincberg said, according to The BLT.