Report Delivers Hard Numbers on Bush Civil Rights Division
By Ryan J. Reilly | December 7, 2021 2:41 pm
Eileen Regen Larence, Grace Chung Becker and Joseph Rich testified on the GAO report on the Civil Rights Division on Thursday (Photo by Ryan J. Reilly / Main Justice).

Eileen Regen Larence, Grace Chung Becker and Joseph Rich testified on the GAO report on the Civil Rights Division on Thursday (Photo by Ryan J. Reilly / Main Justice).

A newly released government report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division from 2001 to 2007 confirms the mass exodus of career attorneys from the division during the Bush administration and shows several areas where enforcement of civil rights law declined.

And, according to Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez, between 2003 and 2007 more than 70 percent of the division’s attorneys left, “leading to a significant depletion of capabilities and institutional knowledge.” Perez made the remarks in prepared testimony before a House Judiciary subcommittee on Thursday.

The GAO report was also released at the hearing, where Eileen Regen Larence, director of GAO’s homeland security and justice division, answered questions from the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.

While the GAO report does not mention the division’s overall attrition rate, which was compiled for an Obama DOJ transition team report that hasn’t been released publicly, it did demonstrate that a large number of employees in different sections left each year.

  • The Employment Section l0st 23 percent of its staff in 2003, 35 percent in 2004 and 22 percent in 2005.
  • In the Voting Section, 31 percent of the staff left in 2005, and 21 percent departed in 2007.
  • For the Special Litigation section, the attrition rate was 31 percent in 2005, 24 percent in 2006 and 18 percent in 2007.

Perez also said the GAO report provides backing for his analysis that there has been a decline in enforcement in several areas during the Bush administration compared with the previous Clinton administration. Those areas include housing discrimination, job discrimination and disability rights.

The report identifies cases where the recommendations of career DOJ attorneys were overruled by George W. Bush political appointees.  The investigators could not pin down the exact number of instances, however, because the division doesn’t maintain electronic records explaining why cases were closed.

Joseph Rich, who worked for the division for 37 years and served as Voting Section chief from 1999 until he left the Justice Department in 2005, said the report confirms his own research and information. Rich testified before the committee on Thursday and cited a 2007 report he helped edit for the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress entitled “The Erosion of Rights,”

By interviewing Voting Section attorneys about 51 of the 345 matters closed in a six-year time frame, the GAO was able to identify three matters in which the Bush-run division had not approved the recommendation of career Voting Section lawyers.

Regarding one of the cases mentioned by the GAO, Rich testified that division political leadership denied a Voting Section recommendation to investigate a case on behalf of Wind River Reservation in Fremont County, Wyo.

It involved a possible violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act based on the county’s use of an at-large election system, which makes it more difficult for minority candidates to win even if they constitute a majority in parts of the jurisdiction. Officials told the Voting Section not to investigate it because it was their belief that there were a large number of Republicans in  the area, according to Rich. According to Rich, after the Justice Department declined to act, the American Civil Liberties Union later filed a lawsuit against the Fremont County jurisdiction. DOJ eventually signed on to the complaint and a court found in favor of the ACLU.

However, in response to questions from the New York Times about the GAO report, Rich said that he believes that Michael Mukasey — who was Attorney General at the end of President Bush’s tenure -  and his team improved the enforcement and hiring practices in the division.

Perez also said that Mukasey began the process of depoliticizing the hiring process in the Civil Rights Division, a process he pledged to complete as the division finalizes new rules to “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 candidates’ political views.”

The former acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, Grace Chung Becker, who served under Mukasey from the spring of 2008 until the end of the Bush administration, also testified Thursday, in defense of the Bush administration. Becker, who failed to win Senate confirmation in the spring of 2008 amid doubts from Democrats about her commitment to enforcing anti-discrimination laws protecting minorities, said the division under her leadership helped non-English speakers obtain ballots in their own language and stepped up prosecution of human trafficking cases.

Case Management Problems

In a separate but related issue, another GAO report also publicly released at Thursday’s hearing  said that compiling data on the division’s activities under the Bush administration proved difficult because of the current case management system.

Despite what GAO characterized as the obvious need to track data on the racial, gender, national origin and sexual orientation groups covered by the statutes that the Civil Rights Division enforces, the current case management system, which was begun in 2000 under the Clinton administration, does not track these “protected class” categories, according to the GAO report.

DOJ officials said the division has not required sections to enter this data into the system since it was implemented. The computer software includes fields for collecting data on protected classes, but in the vast majority of cases the field has been left blank.

Officials in the Employment Litigation Section, Housing and Civil Enforcement Section, Voting Section and Special Litigation Section reported they resorted to using WordPerfect (described by the GAO report as an “ancillary data system”) because it was much easier to search and compile data.

The report made several recommendations for the Civil Rights Division:

  • Conduct annual assessments of the system.
  • Require sections of the division to record data on protected class to strengthen its ability to account for its enforcement efforts.
  • Determine how sections should be required to record data explaining the reasons for closing matters in the system.

Perez said he concurs with the three recommendations regarding case management, and that the department is working to implement those new procedures.

The DOJ believes that “the distribution of information across different case management systems makes it difficult and costly to generate department-level reports that support decision making,” according to the GAO report.

A planned implementation of a new Litigation Case Management System (LCMS) “will enable greater and more effective collaboration and information management,” according to the report. But that project began in March 2006 is now nearly two years behind schedule and over budget.

The DOJ is now uncertain whether the system ever will be implemented in six of the litigating components including the Civil Rights Division. That could mean the Division will need to rely on the old and flawed Interactive Case Management System (ICM), which has been in place since 2000.

While Justice Department guidance encourages each office within DOJ to conduct assessments of electronic data systems, the division has not conducted an assessment since 2006. It also lacks documentation of prior assessments. The report concludes the division lacks information on the performance of ICM and whether it is meeting users’ needs.

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