New Leader Of Justice Department's Civil Rights Dept. Has Hands Full
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Im Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, the U.S. is more than holding its own in the Winter Olympics. But in a country with more than 300 million people and plenty of winter weather, what do you expect? So how do athletes from places like Ghana and Ethiopia compete? Well tell you about some very unlikely Winter Olympians in a few minutes.
But first, a newsmaker interview with Tom Perez. Hes the new assistant attorney general for the civil rights division at the Justice Department. Its an inside the Beltway sounding title but its a job with an impact far outside of Washington that can literally last for decades. The portfolio includes protecting minority voting rights, fighting discriminatory lending practices and protecting Americans from discrimination in housing and employment.
But under the Bush administration, this once proud division was marred by accusations made by its own inspector general that its leaders pursued partisan political agendas more avidly than justice. Attorney General Eric Holder vowed to break with that past when he was sworn in. This is what the Attorney General had to say about that.
Mr. ERIC HOLDER (Attorney General): I am determined to ensure that there shall be a new day for the dedicated career professionals I am once again so honored to call my colleagues. There shall be no place for political favoritism, no reason to be timid in enforcing the laws that protect our rights, our environment, and our principles as long as I have the opportunity to lead this great department. This may be a break from the immediate past but it is consistent with the long history of the Department of Justice.
MARTIN: Tom Perez is the person selected to carry out that pledge and hes with us now in our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. THOMAS PEREZ (Assistant Attorney General): Its a pleasure to be here.
MARTIN: Thats a tall order that the attorney general laid out for you. So what was your first priority in trying to fulfill that commitment?
Mr. PEREZ: My first priority was restoring trust between the career staff and the political staff. I was a career person in the division. I came in in 1989. The president at that time was the elder Bush. The attorney general was Dick Thornburgh. I saw how the department worked, the division worked, in a non-partisan fashion. And then to come back and to see what happened over the last eight years, it frankly broke my heart.
MARTIN: Theres one issue that is not in dispute and that is that there was a significant slowdown in civil rights prosecutions during the administration of President George W. Bush. You worked for his father, George H. W. Bush. Some people might argue that that was the result of a philosophical view that this country has largely overcome the civil rights struggles of the past and they would point to the man in charge - the president and the attorney generals - as evidence of that.
So what case would you make to those who have that perspective about why the department still needs a division like this and why this division needs to be as aggressive as you say that it does?
Mr. PEREZ: Well, weve undeniably made a lot of progress as a nation in terms of civil rights. We have an African-American president. We have a first Latina on the Supreme Court. We have a woman who is the speaker of the House. And there are some who claim the game is over and we are in this post-racial world and theres no more discrimination. Well, I would like to give you a day in the life of the civil rights division.
First weeks on the job we were dealing with horrible hate crimes involving Latinos. We were dealing with an arson of a mosque in Western Tennessee, dealing with the impact of the foreclosure crisis where the corrosive power of fine print has touched every community, unscrupulous lenders who prey on victims who are unwittingly duped into taking out loans that end up turning the American dream into the American nightmare.
And thats disproportionately occurring in communities of color - African-American and Latinos in particular. And so you look at a day in the life of our division. I would love to be the Maytag repairman waiting for that phone to ring. But the phone continues to ring off the hook, whether its voting, whether its housing, whether its education reform issues and educational inequity issues. And the role of the division, the importance of the division, continues to be remarkably critical.
MARTIN: Well, talk about the fair housing and predatory lending practices issues, if you would, for a minute. Why is that a civil rights issue? Some people who might say, well, thats an educational issue, thats a consumer-awareness issue. Why is that a civil rights issue?
Mr. PEREZ: Because the evidence is overwhelming that while the foreclosure crisis has touched every community across this country, its disproportionately touched communities of color. Thirty percent of the foreclosure activity in the state of Maryland was in Prince Georges County, which again is a majority African-American county.
African-Americans were targeted by unscrupulous lenders. And we have the Fair Housing Act and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. Those are two critically important tools that the division has to combat discriminatory lending, and frankly, those tools gathered dust over the last eight years and there were no cases that were brought to combat that. The federal government was asleep at the switch during the Wild, Wild West of the Bush years.
MARTIN: Last year President Obama signed a new bill updating the hate crimes law to protect people who have been attacked because they are gay or transgendered or disabled. Are you pursuing any cases along these lines?
Mr. PEREZ: Well, I had the privilege, Michel, of prosecuting hate crimes for the better part of the decade as a career professional in both the administration of the elder Bush and in the Clinton administration. And I saw many equal opportunity bigots, people who would burn a cross, people who would desecrate a synagogue or a mosque, and people who would attack somebody because of their sexual orientation or because of their gender identity.
And it was so frustrating as a prosecutor to look someone in the eye and say you have been wronged, you have been assaulted, and theres not a darn thing I can do as a federal government because we dont have the statutory tools. And I was working for Senator Kennedy in 1996, when we introduced the first iteration of the hate crimes bill.
Civil rights is about persistence, because 13 years later, regrettably after Senator Kennedy had passed away, that bill was finally signed and that gives our prosecutors critical tools in the battle against bigotry.
MARTIN: If youre just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Were speaking with Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez about his new - well, not so new. You were selected back in June and finally able to take the chair in October.
Youve worked, as you mentioned, in civil rights for much of your career with a stint in local government in the Washington, D.C. area. Im wondering how your stint as a county councilmember may have influenced your thinking about these issues.
Mr. PEREZ: At the county council, you are the first and sometimes the last and sometimes the only line of defense. When I was on the county council, I was a civil rights lawyer because civil rights is about empowering people who dont have a voice. You can do a lot to address civil rights needs at a local government level by using those leverage points that you have to ensure that everybody has a seat at the table and everybody has an opportunity to succeed.
And Im really proud of the county that I had the privilege of serving, which is about to become a majority-minority county.
MARTIN: Well, theres - Im curious about this is there are those who feel that, you know, civil rights law, however important, is a rather blunt instrument to address some of the issues that people are facing now, some of which have to do with not really understanding how to get along with people of different backgrounds.
Its not necessarily motivated by just a sort of pure outright animus but just ignorance and things of that sort. Im just wondering if your experience as a local official changed your view of how the law should work or how the law can be more effective in getting people to actually live better together.
Mr. PEREZ: Well, my experience as a local official was remarkably rich and what I learned from it was we need what I call redundancies in law enforcement. And what I mean by that is we need to have protections that level the playing field for everybody at a federal level. We need protections at a state level, and we need protections at a local level.
I fought, as a county council member, to amend our human rights ordinance to protect people who were victims of lending discrimination. The reason we need those redundancies is because, at any given point, laws are only as good as the political will of people enforcing them. I served on the council from 2002 to 2006. There was no meaningful civil rights enforcement at a federal level during that period. There was very little protection in the state of Maryland because we had a governor who didnt believe in civil rights at that point. And so local government was really the only line of defense for vulnerable people.
MARTIN: So get the job done the way you can.
Mr. PEREZ: Amen.
MARTIN: Where do you think can you just tell us a little bit about yourself? Where do you think your motivation and your drive comes from? I understand that you are the son of Dominican immigrants?
Mr. PEREZ: Right.
MARTIN: And you grew up here, of course. What do you think drives you?
Mr. PEREZ: Well, like most, like so many people, were inspired by the example of our parents. My parents came here as exiles from the Dominican Republic, fleeing a brutal dictator. This country gave my family so much and we were taught that you need to work hard and make sure the ladder is down for everyone. And all of my siblings - Im the youngest of five and all my siblings are actually doctors and I had to promise that I would never be a plaintiff's personal injury lawyer. I kept that promise and I went into the civil rights area because I really do believe that civil rights is the unfinished business of America.
And my parents taught me that, you know, to whom much is given, much is expected, and so really for me my faith and my family have inspired me to ensure that we work hard for vulnerable people.
MARTIN: How do you ensure that you dont then start acting out your political agenda, you know, sort of, you know, looking to replicate yourself in the department. Do you understand what Im saying? How do you assure...
Mr. PEREZ: Sure.
MARTIN: ...accountability for yourself that you dont become the thing that youre trying to oppose?
Mr. PEREZ: Well, I had the good fortune of working as a career professional under both Republican and Democratic administrations. The civil rights division is a law enforcement agency. The work that we do is nuts and bolts law enforcement and our job is to enforce the law, all of the laws, and not to pick and choose. The civil rights division, its not the buffet line at the cafeteria where, you know, you like the peas, you like the carrots but you dont like the Brussels sprouts.
Thats what happened in the last eight years. We dont like disparate impact theory so were not going to use it. We dont like hate crimes enforcement so you saw hate crimes enforcement plummet over the era of the Bush administration. Our job is to enforce the law, all of the laws, and to return to the tradition, which was a tradition under Republican and Democratic administrations, of non-partition enforcement.
MARTIN: How will you know if you have succeeded in this job?
Mr. PEREZ: Well, I think there are a number of metrics and we have that discussion all the time. Our mission, were the conscience of the federal government and I will know weve succeeded when we have equal opportunity for people to pursue employment. So if you are a police officer or a firefighter, the application process will be fair and it will give you an opportunity to succeed. It doesnt guarantee outcomes, but it guarantees a level playing field during that process.
We know you we will have succeeded when we continue to build communities that are safe for people. Were changing the culture of the division to make sure that people understand that we value their input.
MARTIN: We need to take a short break but when we come back well have more with Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez in just a minute. Please stay with us. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Im Michel Martin.
(Soundbite of music)
MARTIN: Im Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, some new competitors are changing the face of the winter Olympics, including a cross country skier from Ethiopia and an Alpine skier from Mexico -who knew? Thats in a moment. But first, we continue our conversation with Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez. He heads the civil rights division of the Justice Department. He is with us for a few more minutes. Tom Perez, I wanted to ask you about a case thats attracted a lot of attention in New York. Thats the case of Sean Bell, a young man who was killed in a confrontation with police officers of the eve of his wedding. The officers involved were acquitted of criminal charges. Civil rights charges were pursued on their behalf. Its been reported that there will not be a prosecution in this case, can you comment on that?
Mr. PEREZ: Sure. I met with the family of Mr. Bell, I met with his fiance. I met with his parents along with the U.S. attorney, and Attorney General Holder spoke with Reverend Sharpton, who has been a representative of the family. And the issue is this: We have one statute in the police context and it requires that we prove that the officers specifically intended to violate the constitutional rights of the individual. That is to say that they knew what they were doing was wrong and they did it anyway.
Bad judgment, negligence, recklessness - thats not enough. We have one and only one standard and its the highest standard. And based on our review, we concluded that we would not be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officers actions constituted a violation of this very high bar thats put forth in the statute.
So I personally met with the family because I thought that they had a right to hear face to face from me, and we answered a lot of questions and it was a very...
MARTIN: This was yesterday?
Mr. PEREZ: This was Tuesday of this week.
MARTIN: Of this week? So in essence youre saying this is, as the police described it, a tragedy, not a crime?
Mr. PEREZ: Well, this is not a prosecutable violation of federal criminal civil rights laws, and this is a tragedy. Its undeniably a tragedy.
MARTIN: What do you think the public should draw from this, your decision in this case or the decision of the department in this case?
Mr. PEREZ: Well, the decision of the department, I think the public should understand, is based on the application of the facts as we know them to the law as we are given, and its a very high bar. In state prosecution you have four or five different standards of intent. You could show whats called often murder one, premeditated murder, you can show recklessness, et cetera.
The state prosecution in that case was under a recklessness standard and they could not meet the burden in that case. The entire incident took about 30 seconds. And its very difficult when youre trying to re-enact things, and we actually retained an independent ballistics expert to recreate the scene as best we could understand. We interviewed many, many witnesses. We conducted a significant crime scene investigation and we made that judgment, and these cases are hard.
I have spent a decade prosecuting these cases, investigating these cases. And I wanted to tell the family that while I understand their disappointment, I wanted to explain to them exactly what we did because I can look them in the eye with certainty and conviction and tell them that we left no stone unturned. And it was a tragedy. And I wish Mr. Bell were here today. And it pains me to no end to look his parents in the eye and his fiance in the eye and have to have that conversation. But we have to enforce the law and we have to do so independently and analyze the evidence and thats precisely what we did.
MARTIN: Tom Perez is the assistant attorney general for the civil rights division at the Department of Justice. He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. We thank you so much for speaking to us.
Mr. PEREZ: Its a pleasure to be here.