03/12/2013 03:08 pm ET Updated Mar 12, 2013

Voting Rights Act: Obama 'Cloak-And-Dagger' DOJ Group On Section 5 Excluded Key Bush Official

WASHINGTON -- A Justice Department official appointed to head the Voting Section of DOJ's Civil Rights Division during the Bush administration was excluded in 2009 from the Obama administration's efforts to prepare for the fall of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, according to a new Inspector General report.

A report on the operations of the Voting Section over the past several years indicated that a "Sensitive Working Group" led by political appointees planned out how to respond to the possible death of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Sam Hirsch, a political appointee, repeatedly told the career Voting Section lawyers involved that the preparation project was "close hold" and "confidential," according to the IG report.

Christopher Coates, who headed the Voting Section during the late Bush administration and early Obama administration, was excluded from the group's work, the report said. Former Deputy Assistant Attorney General Julie Fernandes said that Hirsch's projects were "cloak-and-dagger" and existed in a "cone of silence."

Current Voting Section Chief Chris Herron told the IG that the Sensitive Working Group focused on both legislative strategy and litigation strategy. Spencer Overton, formerly the principle deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Policy, was also involved in the project.

Hirsch told the IG that Coates was excluded from some of the projects in consultation with Overton and at the request of Coates subordinates, who believed he would be upset over their work with Division leadership or would slow their work down to "a snail's pace."

Hirsch also told the IG that Coates was excluded because Hirsch wanted to keep the group small and was concerned that Coates wouldn't exercise discretion in keeping things private if he disagreed on an issue.

Hirsch "said that a lot of members in this group shared a certain amount of common ground about voting rights and election law and that Coates may have been out of synch with those views," according to the report.

Coates was considered a "true member of the team" by a Bush-era DOJ official who was found to have improperly politicized the Division. Coates testified against DOJ's handling of the controversial New Black Panther Party case.

The report found numerous examples of partisan conflict and "troubling examples of harassment and marginalization of employees and managers, as well as the unauthorized disclosure of confidential information, that appeared to result from ideological divisions within the Section," during both the Obama and Bush administrations. The report concluded that the "high partisan stakes associated with some of the statutes that the Voting Section enforces have contributed to polarization and mistrust within the section."



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