Report Scrutinizes Justice Dept. Civil Rights Practices

During the Bush administration, career employees at the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division told stories about unprecedented politicization. Now the government has released hard numbers to support those anecdotes.

A new report by the Government Accountability Office provides detailed statistics about enforcement patterns in the Civil Rights Division between fiscal years 2001 and 2007. The report was the subject of an oversight hearing Wednesday by the House Judiciary Committee.

Tom Perez, the new head of the division, testified that his mission "is one of restoration." He noted that according to the GAO report, the Civil Rights Division lost 70 percent of its lawyers between 2003 and 2007.

Joe Rich, one of the lawyers who left during that period, testified that in nearly 40 years of working in the Civil Rights Division, he had never seen partisanship on the scale of what occurred during the Bush administration.

"The damage to the Civil Rights Division from eight years of politicization has been extremely serious," Rich told the committee. "I know I speak on behalf of almost all former employees who left in this period in our fervent hope that this and other reports will be vigorously addressed by the Obama administration."

Another report by the Justice Department's inspector general last July documented illegal partisan hiring practices in the division. Perez told the committee one of the division's first priorities would involve revamping the hiring process to be fair, transparent and apolitical.

In the report, the GAO analyzes the number and type of civil rights cases the Justice Department filed. Perez said the numbers show a drop in many enforcement areas from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration, including job discrimination, disability rights and housing discrimination.

Grace Chung Becker, who ran the division at the end of the Bush administration, said there were great successes as well. She described areas where the Civil Rights Division set new records in the last eight years, such as ballot access for voters who speak foreign languages.

Lawyers under the Bush administration "filed more cases under the language minority provisions of the Voting Rights Act than the Clinton, Bush I, Reagan, Carter and all other previous administrations combined," Becker told the committee.

The GAO report also describes instances where political appointees prohibited lawyers from investigating cases. In one instance, state officials allegedly intimidated black voters. The report does not identify the state but says political leaders refused to "approve further contact with state authorities on this matter." Perez told the committee he is revisiting the case.

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