WASHINGTON -- Former Justice Department officials are pushing back on a report released last week that they say falsely equates the Bush administration’s politicization of the department's Voting Section with the Obama administration’s efforts to get the demoralized division back on track.
The 258-page document, issued by the inspector general, Michael Horowitz, cited a “troubling history of polarization” and “harassment and marginalization of employees and managers” in the department's Voting Section, the part of the Civil Rights Division charged with enforcing federal laws meant to prevent discrimination in voting. "Leadership and career staff alike must embrace a culture where ideological diversity is viewed as beneficial and dissenting viewpoints in internal deliberations are welcomed and respected," Horowitz concluded.
Those findings, the former officials said, lump accusations about politicization during the Bush and Obama administrations into one indistinguishable mess. The politicized hiring stemmed from the Bush administration alone, and the new report fails to take into account the consequences of those personnel decisions, they said.
“It does seem to me that the inspector general was going out of his way to try and write what someone who knew nothing about the subject would consider a balanced report,” Bill Yeomans, former acting assistant attorney general for civil rights, told The Huffington Post. “As we know in news coverage and so many instances, that’s the prescription for not coming up with the truth. Unfortunately, I think that’s what happened here.”
Other former Justice Department officials -- career staffers and political appointees who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of employer restrictions or to avoid publicly criticizing the inspector general’s office -- echoed Yeomans' conclusion. "They were kind of going out of their way to say 'a pox on both your houses,'” said one. “That conclusion seems somewhat unsupported by their evidence."
“It just seemed to me they were trying to make it look balanced," said another former official. "I don’t know what was going on.”
To achieve that balance, Horowitz’s report recommended de-emphasizing civil rights experience in hiring decisions, a recommendation tough to imagine the inspector general making in any other area of the law.
“If you have an arms control bureau, would you hire people who were opposed to arms control?” a former Justice Department official asked.
“That’s one of the arguments that conservatives have pushed here -- that you need to take voting rights expertise out of the equation because people who have spent their lives working in the area of civil rights are, according to them, going to be liberal,” Yeomans said. “Unfortunately, supporting civil rights has become a partisan matter. So if you’re a civil rights supporter, you’re labeled a liberal.”
The timing of the report is less than ideal for the Obama administration. Tom Perez, who took over the Civil Rights Division in October 2009, was named this week as President Barack Obama’s choice to be secretary of labor. Section 5, the key provision of the Voting Rights Act that prevents certain states with a history of racial discrimination from voting changes without federal permission, may soon be struck down by the Supreme Court. Voting Section supporters said they worried the report may create a perception that the division can’t be trusted with Section 5 oversight duties, constantly under political scrutiny.
The inquiry itself has its roots in GOP circles. In 2010, Republican members of Congress began demanding answers to accusations that Obama’s Justice Department was hiring only liberals, that political considerations wrongly affected law enforcement decisions and that Freedom of Information Act requests from conservatives were being ignored. Their questions were initially set off by a decision early in the Obama administration to narrow the scope of a civil voter intimidation case against members of the New Black Panther Party. The case, heavily covered by Fox News, spawned accusations that the administration didn’t care about protecting white voters.
The report, reaching back to the Clinton administration, claims that former Assistant Attorney General Bill Lee oversaw a hiring “spree” before the Bush administration that was a “significant” source of “mistrust and polarization” within the Voting Section. The report found the “hiring campaign” had “generated mistrust between the incoming political leadership in the Division.”
Lee told HuffPost that the inspector general never tried to interview him before placing a significant chunk of the blame for the polarization at his feet.
“The IG’s Office contacted me in early February 2013 and apprised me of a portion of the report,” Lee said in an email. “The portion drew conclusions about the period I was assistant attorney general for civil rights without interviewing me or otherwise contacting me beforehand. I protested, provided some preliminary information, and requested that the IG interview me.”
The inspector general, said Lee, never responded.
“It just suggests that the investigation was launched with the purpose and they were eager to avoid inconvenient facts,” Yeomans said of the failure to interview Lee.
The inspector general's office had no comment on the criticisms of the report or the failure to interview Lee.
The vast majority of the incidents cited in the report -- many involving liberals targeting conservatives -- took place during the Bush administration. It recounts previously established facts about how Bradley Schlozman, the former acting head of the Civil Rights Division, referred to Voting Section attorneys as “commies” and “mold spores” and sought to “gerrymander” those “crazy libs” to make room for “real” and “right-thinking Americans.”
Lawyers with no civil rights experience were hired into career positions because of their conservative ideology. The report cited Schlozman specifically for having a "documented record of making hiring decisions on improper partisan bases."
One person that Schlozman promoted was Christopher Coates, who became the head of the Voting Section toward the end of the Bush administration. Schlozman, according to the report, referred to Coates as a “member of the team.” Coates, who would later go on to refer to civil rights organizations as “special interest lobbies for racial and ethnic minorities,” was perceived to be hostile to “traditional” voting rights enforcement, according to the inspector general's report.
It was Coates who approved the controversial New Black Panther Party case that is widely seen as a trap set for the Obama administration in the final days of the Bush administration. That case was pushed by J. Christian Adams, a conservative career Justice Department attorney hired during the Bush era that one longtime Voting Section official referred to as "exhibit A" of the type of person Schlozman hired.
The inspector general's report noted that Coates improperly tried to “balance” a hiring panel by selecting members based on their perceived ideology.
The Obama administration, perhaps unsurprisingly, excluded Coates from some meetings about defending the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act and discussed getting rid of him. In early 2009, according to the report, one Voting Section trial attorney asked the acting head of the Civil Rights Division when the unit would be "free from enemy hands," referring to Coates. Acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King’s reply -- "LOL! No comment." -- was part of the inspector general’s case for demonstrating that Coates might have been targeted for his ideology.
Attorney General Eric Holder told the inspector general that he had the sense that Coates wanted to focus on “reverse-discrimination” cases at the expense of traditional civil rights cases. Holder said he understood Coates to be “not a person who believed in the traditional way in which things had been done in the Civil Rights Division.”
Despite talk of removing him, Coates was protected as a member of the senior executive service and didn’t leave until Perez was confirmed as assistant attorney general (after reportedly telling Perez he was a “lousy” manager).
“There’s a fairly simple story here, which is that the Bush administration dropped Brad Schlozman and Hans von Spakovsky and J. Christian Adams into the Voting Section to blow it up. It should be no surprise it blew up,” Yeomans said, referring to former Bush-era lawyers who have since signed onto an amicus brief now before the Supreme Court arguing that a provision of the Voting Rights Act they were supposed to enforce is unconstitutional. “I think the Obama administration has done an admirable job trying to put it back together and trying to restore professional standards.”