The U.S. Justice Department office that oversees voting laws has been politically polarized with an atmosphere of mistrust, according to an inspector general’s report that also concludes the unit’s decisions weren’t flawed.
The dismissal of a voter intimidation lawsuit against members of the New Black Panther Party for their activity at a Philadelphia polling site in the 2008 election wasn’t motivated by partisan politics, according to the report.
Still, the 258-page report, the result of almost three years of work, concludes that “deep ideological polarizations” have harmed the section that oversees voting rights cases.
The report comes as Thomas Perez, the head of the Justice Department’s civil-rights division, which includes the voting section, is said to be President Barack Obama’s choice as labor secretary, according to two people familiar with the matter.
In a letter to Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz released today, Perez said he concurred with most of the report’s findings. Perez agreed no political motivation was behind the dismissal of the New Black Panther case, and cited the report’s finding that the decisions “were not the result of improper racial or political considerations.”
Horowitz’s report spans more than a decade of decisions and disputes inside the Justice Department, going back to the transition between President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush in 2000.
The report describes a voting-rights section often split by partisan allegiances. Horowitz found no evidence that conflicts within the section led to the pursuit of improper partisan advantage or the refusal to enforce some laws for particular groups of voters.
Still, disputes between career employees and political appointees, appearances of political influence in decision making, and perceptions of shifts in enforcement priorities led to a “disappointing lack of professionalism” by some employees during the Bush and Obama administrations, according to the report.
“We believe the high partisan stakes associated with some of the statutes that the Voting Section enforces have contributed to polarization and mistrust within the section,” the report said.
Republican lawmakers have pressed Perez and the Justice Department for information about the office’s activities under President Barack Obama’s administration, including details on the decision to dismiss the case against three New Black Panthers in 2009.
Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, said during a congressional hearing featuring Attorney General Eric Holder last week that the department’s decision not to bring action in the New Black Panther case was an example of “what many perceive as the politicized enforcement of the law at the Justice Department.”
Perez, 51, hadn’t been confirmed in his current role when the decision was made to drop the lawsuit against three of the four individuals involved. The accusations stem from the 2008 election, and the case was filed in the final days of Bush’s administration. The fourth individual received an injunction barring him from appearing at a Philadelphia polling station.
House Republicans, including Frank Wolf of Virginia, the chairman of the panel that oversees the Justice Department’s budget, and former Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith of Texas, have pressed the department for information on the decision not to pursue the case.
Wolf said today he was “deeply troubled” by the report and called on Holder to appoint an independent panel to conduct a review of the voting section.
“The report makes clear that the division has become a rat’s nest of unacceptable and unprofessional actions, and even outright threats against career attorneys and systemic mismanagement,” Wolf said in a statement.
Perez said he has worked to institute changes to the office since he joined the department in 2009.
“Without question, the voting section in January 2009 had low morale and an unacceptable degree of staff conflict,” Perez said in his letter to Horowitz. Though Perez cited “significant progress” in changing the section’s culture, he acknowledged that “additional work remains.”
During Perez’s tenure, the civil-rights division has expanded its work under the Voting Rights Act, challenging and successfully blocking several state voter-identification laws before the 2012 election. Perez, in his letter, cited an increase in workload and productivity that section leaders believe “are among the highest levels ever.”
Perez, the former secretary of the Maryland Department of Labor, said he has instituted “a number of steps to improve the professionalism of our workplace and to ensure that we enforce the civil rights laws in an independent, evenhanded fashion,” including review procedures and an overhauled hiring process.
Today’s report marks the second politically charged subject Horowitz has taken on since he became the department’s inspector general in 2012. Horowitz recommended 14 Justice Department employees for disciplinary or administrative action for their roles in the botched firearm operation known as Fast and Furious, which led to the loss of more than 2,000 guns across the Mexican border.
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