By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 22, 2008
Democratic critics say Hans A. von Spakovsky is an odd fit for his new job at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Von Spakovsky, a former Justice Department official who pushed for the approval of a Georgia voter identification law that critics claimed made it difficult for poor people and the elderly to vote, was hired in July as a special assistant for the commission.
The commission's vice chair, Abigail Thernstrom, said von Spakovsky is needed to help reduce the panel's mounting workload, brought on by congressional budget cuts and staff layoffs. Commissioner Todd F. Gaziano recommended von Spakovsky for top government pay, equal to $124,000 a year.
Commissioner Michael Yaki opposed the move. "Usually assistants are young folks out of law school who are excited to learn, not a way station for retreads who've been criticized for their less than sterling defense of voting rights laws," he said.
Thernstrom said von Spakovsky won't be in the job long. His tenure will probably end in about two months, when the budget surplus from which his salary is drawn evaporates at the close of the fiscal year.
"We've had a terrible time finding quality people," Thernstrom said. "Todd knows Hans because Todd works at the Heritage Foundation and Hans contributes to the Heritage Foundation. He has written some things about voting rights."
Thernstrom and Gaziano are among the six conservatives who make up a majority on the commission. Yaki is one of two Democrats. Von Spakovsky could not be reached for comment.
Von Spakovsky was a former assistant attorney general for civil rights. His work on voting rights rankled the civil service staff and led to the scuttling of his bid for a six-year seat on the Federal Election Commission.
During Senate confirmation hearings to determine whether von Spakovsky would sit on the FEC, former civil service employees at Justice submitted a letter condemning his actions on voting rights. The letter said von Spakovsky acted as a de facto voting section chief from 2003 to 2005, "furthering partisan interests."
"We have never seen a political appointee exercise this level of control over the day-to-day operations of the voting section," the letter said. Von Spakovsky steered the department to adopt "voting rights policies not seen before, pushing to curb minor instances of election fraud by imposing sweeping restrictions that would make it harder, not easier, for Democratic-leaning poor and minority voters to cast ballots."
Yaki said von Spakovsky's presence at the commission is troubling because "we have two reports dealing with voting rights that are . . . yet to be published, and my concern is what role he will have in regard to those reports."
Thernstrom said that the commission "does not have any more work to be done on the voting rights briefing" and that von Spakovsky would not have an influence on its findings.
"Two months may not be much time for him to do damage," Yaki said, "but the symbolism is much more damaging because of the message it sends to the people we're supposed to be protecting."