By Thomas B. Edsall and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 17, 2005
President Bush nominated two controversial lawyers to the Federal Election Commission yesterday: Hans von Spakovsky who helped Georgia win approval of a disputed voter-identification law, and Robert D. Lenhard, who was part of a legal team that challenged the constitutionality of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law.
In addition, Bush proposed a second term for commissioner David M. Mason and nominated Steven T. Walther, a Nevada lawyer with close ties to Democratic Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).
Von Spakovsky and Mason are Republican appointees, while Lenhard and Walther are Democratic picks for the bipartisan six-member commission.
In a letter to Senate Rules Committee Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) wrote that he is "extremely troubled" by the von Spakovsky nomination. Kennedy contends that von Spakovsky "may be at the heart of the political interference that is undermining the [Justice] Department's enforcement of federal civil laws."
Career Justice Department lawyers involved in a Georgia case said von Spakovsky pushed strongly for approval of a state program requiring voters to have photo identification. A team of staff lawyers that examined the case recommended 4 to 1 that the Georgia plan should be rejected because it would harm black voters; the recommendation was overruled by von Spakovsky and other senior officials in the Civil Rights Division.
Before working in the Justice Department, von Spakovsky was the Republican Party chairman in Fulton County, Ga., and served on the board of the Voter Integrity Project, which advocated regular purging of voter roles to prevent felons from casting ballots.
In a brief telephone interview, von Spakovsky played down his role in policy decisions in the Civil Rights Division. "I'm just a career lawyer who works in the front office of civil rights," he said. He noted that the department has rules against career lawyers talking to reporters.
In a 1997 policy paper, von Spakovsky wrote, "Georgia should require all potential voters to present reliable photo identification at their polling location to help prevent impostors from voting."
Asked if it was a conflict for von Spakovsky to work on a case involving a Republican plan in his home state of Georgia, Justice spokesman Eric Holland said: "Many of the dedicated and professional attorneys in the Voting Rights Section have worked in advocacy roles involving voting issues prior to their arrival at the Justice Department. . . . Justice Department attorneys are always mindful of their responsibility to perform duties in ethical matters, including recusing themselves as necessary under standards of ethical and professional conduct."
The Lenhard nomination, first proposed in July 2003, has provoked strong opposition from advocacy groups seeking tough enforcement of campaign finance laws, especially the 2002 McCain-Feingold bill.
Meredith McGehee, president and executive director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns, described the prospect of Lenhard replacing Thomas as "beyond disappointing" when it was first proposed.
Reid issued a statement yesterday saying that he is "very pleased the president acted today upon my two recommendations for Commissioners on the Federal Election Commission," Walther and Lenhard.