House Republicans criticized the handling of a whistleblower case by President Obama’s labor secretary nominee on Tuesday during a joint subcommittee hearing dominated by sniping between panel members.
The contentious hearing, which involved members of the House oversight and judiciary committees, came just one day before a Senate committee is set to vote on whether to confirm Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, who heads the Justice Department’s civil rights division.
Under Perez’s leadership, Justice’s civil rights attorneys agreed not to assist in a whistleblower complaint against the city of St. Paul, Minn. in exchange for the municipality dropping its Supreme Court challenge against certain housing-discrimination guidelines, according to House oversight investigators who interviewed the Cabinet pick.
Key House and Senate Republicans said in an April report that the Justice Department’s failure to intervene in the Minnesota whistleblower case resulted in a missed opportunity to recover as much as $200 million in taxpayer funds awarded through “false certifications.”
GOP lawmakers have suggested that Perez made the deal for ideological reasons — to keep the Supreme Court from weighing in on the legality of housing discrimination protections
Perez has denied personal involvement with the decision not to sue St. Paul, telling lawmakers during a Senate confirmation hearing in April that lower-level Justice Department attorneys made the decision.
Shelly R. Slade, a former Justice attorney who specialized in cases involving fraud against the government, testified during the hearing that she would have recommended declining the whistleblower case, partly on grounds that it was not winnable.
Slade also said she agrees with the Justice Department’s decision to consider wider national interests beyond the St. Paul case. “I see nothing the least bit untoward or unusual about that action,” she said in her written testimony. “The civil division’s decisions on intervention often take into account another agency’s broader policy concerns or interests outside the four corners of the case.”
The St. Paul whistleblower, African American pastor and builder Frederick Newell, said after testifying that he feels caught in the middle of two fights unrelated to his own: The disagreement over Perez’s confirmation and a potential battle over housing discrimination guidelines.
“It’s been difficult to address the issues I want to address in this political climate,” Newell said, noting that his goal is to ensure that cities comply with federal guidelines for dispensing HUD funds.
During the hearing, lawmakers spent nearly as much time trading barbs and even bickering over procedural rules as they did questioning witnesses. Democrats questioned the motive of the hearing, but Republicans insisted that Perez had done a disservice to taxpayers.
“Most alarming about this quid pro quo is the precedent that this case sets for future whistleblowers who bring claims of waste, fraud and abuse, only to be thrown under the bus for political purposes,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).
Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y), ranking member of the House judiciary committee, argued that “The entire purpose of this hearing is to attack the leadership and reputation of one of this nation’s best public servants.”
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House oversight committee, sent a letter to Perez on Monday accusing him of ignoring an April 10 request for personal e-mails relating to Justice Department business.
“Your continued and blatant disregard for a duly issued congressional subpoena is extremely disconcerting, especially coming from one of the nation’s highest law-enforcement officers sworn to uphold the Constitution,” Issa said.
The Justice Department said last week in a letter to Issa that it “expended considerable resources” and “made extraordinary efforts” to accommodate the committee’s requests, claiming Perez had already more than 1,400 pages of documents and searched his personal e-mail account twice.
“We believe that we have satisfied the legitimate oversight interest regarding Mr. Perez’s emails,” the letter said.
In his letter on Monday, Issa responded that “It is not the prerogative of the Department of Justice to determine the interest and expectations of the United States Congress.”
(Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the Senate rather than a Senate committee was scheduled to vote on whether to confirm Perez.)
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