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The scapegoating of Thomas Perez

EVEN BEFORE President Obama nominated Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez to be labor secretary, the talk in Washington was that Republicans would not make his confirmation easy. Among other things, some conservatives have pointed to a recent Justice Department inspector general report as evidence of Mr. Perez’s unsuitability. The 300-page document is, indeed, damning. But not for Mr. Perez.

Since October 2009, Mr. Perez has run the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division , and the inspector general focused on the division’s voting rights section, which has been at the center of a series of controversies. That’s in part because the section is so powerful. Under the Voting Rights Act, for example, many states and localities must ask its staff to sign off on any changes to their voting rules before they can implement them. Under the same statute, the section can bring cases against people and organizations that intimidate voters or prevent citizens from casting ballots.

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During the George W. Bush administration, one of the section’s leaders pushed to hire conservatives, and in an unprecedented move, the section brought cases against African Americans for allegedly infringing on the voting rights of whites. That provoked backlash from career staffers who saw the purpose of laws such as the Voting Rights Act as protecting traditionally disadvantaged minorities. Conservatives fought back. Intense intra-office animus led to vicious internal spats. Leaks were common. The vitriol spilled out onto Web sites, where Justice Department staffers used racial epithets and even offered what could have been read as threats of violence against co-workers. This was all before Mr. Perez took over.

After Mr. Obama’s inauguration, career staffers ran the voting section on an interim basis, which led to another fraught episode. In the last days of the Bush years, the section had raced to file a case against members of the New Black Panther Party for alleged voter intimidation at a Philadelphia polling place in 2008. The section’s new management decided to drop the complaint against all but one defendant, exposing the Obama administration to accusations that the president was helping a political ally. Mr. Perez eventually testified that no political appointees were involved in the decision. That’s not quite true — a couple were. But not Mr. Perez, who wasn’t even at the department at the time, and the inspector general found political appointees didn’t make any of the big decisions, which were defensible in any case.

If Republicans want to ask Mr. Perez about a deal the Wall Street Journal editorial page says he arranged to head off Supreme Court review of some of his division’s work, fair enough. Fair, too, would be questions about the inspector general’s findings that intra-office suspicion lingers in the voting section.

But Republicans should also consider the entire report, which makes clear that, following the explosion of strife during the Bush years, the section’s leaders tried to stress the importance of professionalism in the office. Mr. Perez continued and expanded those efforts — by, for example, making clear that political ideology should not be a factor in hiring.

 
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