A former Justice Department official says that one of President Donald Trump’s picks for a federal judgeship, Thomas Farr, did not tell the Senate Judiciary Committee the truth about his role in a notorious Senate campaign that tried to confuse and intimidate minority voters.
In 1990, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) was running for re-election against Harvey Gantt, the first black mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina. Republicans sent 125,000 postcards to heavily African-American precincts in the state. The postcards noted that voters needed to have lived in their precinct for 30 days to vote there and warned that they could face jail time if they tried to vote improperly. The U.S. Department of Justice sued the Helms campaign and the Republican Party of North Carolina for violating the Voting Rights Act by trying to intimidate black voters. The case was eventually settled with a consent decree, though the defendants denied wrongdoing. Helms won the election.
The lawyer for Helms’ campaign in 1990 (and in 1984) was Farr, whom Trump tapped in July to be a U.S. district judge for the Eastern District of North Carolina. In September, besides appearing before the Judiciary Committee, Farr provided written answers to questions submitted by the members of the panel.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) asked Farr if he had been consulted or provided counsel in any way over the decision to send the postcards. Farr said that he had not and that he hadn’t learned of the scheme until after the postcards were mailed and the Justice Department sent a letter to the campaign about them.
But Gerald Hebert, who had served as deputy chief of the voting section in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in the 1990s, told HuffPost that Farr knew about the postcard plan earlier and provided advice about it. Hebert didn’t work on the case directly, but said he had talked frequently with the two lawyers who did. At the time, Hebert, who spent 20-plus years at the Justice Department, kept a diary of what was going on in the case. His notes show that in October 1990, Farr held a meeting with campaign officials at his law office where they discussed “ballot security.”
“He told them, ‘Look we can’t do what we did in ’84 because in ’84 we sent all these postcards and we could use them to challenge voters at the polls, but we can’t do that anymore because the legislature fixed it in ’85. We’ll only use it if there’s a post-election challenge, a recount.’ So he gave them that kind of advice,” said Hebert, who is now senior director of voting rights and redistricting at the watchdog group Campaign Legal Center. “For him to say that he had no role in the case is simply incorrect.”
In a response to another question from Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Farr wrote that he only became aware of the postcards after they were mailed and that he was “appalled” to read them and to learn they were sent to African-American voters.
“I then learned that the Helms Committee intended to use any returned cards to challenge voters on election day. After I became aware of this effort, the Helms Committee followed my advice to cancel any and all election day activities related to the use of these cards to challenge voters. Based upon my instructions, returned cards were not used to challenge voters,” Farr said in the questionnaire.
After reviewing Farr’s written answers, Hebert said “there is no doubt that the answers in this questionnaire are contrary to the facts.”
“Farr also denied he had ‘any role in the drafting or sending of the postcards.’ But he did discuss the issue of sending the postcards three weeks before they were sent. I would describe that as playing some ‘role,‘” Hebert wrote in an email. “He also denied flat out that he did not ‘participate in any meetings in which the postcards were discussed before they were sent.’ That is definitely incorrect.”
Farr did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment. Lying to Congress can be punishable by a fine and up to five years in prison.
In its 1992 complaint filed in federal court, the Justice Department said that when members of the Helms campaign met in mid-October 1990 to discuss ballot security measures, “an attorney who had been involved in past ballot security efforts on behalf of Senator Helms and/or the Defendant North Carolina Republican party” was present. The complaint did not name that lawyer. The measures discussed at that meeting, the complaint said, included a way to target voters who may have changed residences. The meeting took place around Oct. 16 and 17, the complaint alleged, and the postcards were sent on Oct. 26 and 29.
Durbin spokesman Ben Marter told HuffPost that the senator already opposed Farr’s nomination and that Hebert’s recollection “raises serious questions that need to be answered about whether Farr has been honest and forthcoming with the committee.”
Sen. Feinstein released a statement on Friday saying: “I voted against Tom Farr in committee because his record doesn’t indicate that he would protect the voting rights of all Americans. Media reports indicate that he was not truthful in his response to my question about his involvement in the Jesse Helms’s campaign voter suppression efforts. This disturbs me greatly. Nominees must be forthright with the Judiciary Committee. These are lifetime appointments we’re talking about. We’re currently evaluating how best to proceed in light of this new information.”
The Judiciary Committee approved Farr’s nomination and sent it on to the full Senate in October. The Congressional Black Caucus and civil rights groups have already opposed the nominee because as a private attorney, he defended a swath of North Carolina laws making it more difficult to vote as well as electoral maps that diluted the influence of minority voters. Farr defended the state’s voter ID law, which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit struck down last year in a ruling that said it had targeted African-American voters ”with almost surgical precision.”
“It is unconscionable that President Trump would nominate Thomas Farr who was involved in supporting the bigoted and racist campaign tactics of then-Senator Jesse Helms,” Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) said in a statement.
Scrutiny over Farr’s role in the postcard incident comes as the credibility of Brett Talley, another one of Trump’s judicial picks, is under question. Talley failed to disclose on his own Senate questionnaire that he is married to a top aide to Don McGahn, the White House counsel. McGahn is charged with overseeing Trump’s selections for the federal bench.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund is calling on the Senate Judiciary Committee to recall both Farr and Talley for further questioning.
“There is no position more important to our democracy than that of a federal judge. Those selected for the judiciary are given a lifetime appointment, and are entrusted to adjudicate difficult legal disputes and fairly interpret the Constitution. This tremendous responsibility requires candidates with unimpeachable qualifications as well as a clear commitment to honesty and the civil rights of all Americans,” Sherrilyn Ifill, the group’s president and director-counsel, said in a statement. “Now they must explain to the Judiciary Committee why they failed to provide full and accurate responses, and answer questions about the newly discovered information.”
Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said, “This new information demonstrates Mr. Farr’s lack of veracity and the Senate Judiciary Committee should hold another hearing to examine his truthfulness under oath and his qualifications.”
The White House and the office of committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) had no immediate comment.
The story has been updated with comment from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Rep. G.K. Butterfield and Vanita Gupta.