Policy: Labor

Sean Higgins: Perez snubs Congress he wants to confirm him

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Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights, is set to have his nomination as secretary of labor voted on by a Senate committee Thursday.

One question the senators might want to ask before they vote: Why is Perez ignoring a congressional subpoena?

Last month, Republicans led by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, demanded that Perez turn over 1,200 of his emails.

The messages were from Perez's personal, nongovernment account but the Justice Department has admitted they were used to conduct official government business, making them subject to subpoena.

Even though the committee's top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., joined Issa in demanding the emails, Perez has thus far refused to turn them over.

This is not the first case of an administration official using a nonofficial email account for official business in an apparent attempt to circumvent federal transparency laws.

Former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson was revealed by a conservative group's Freedom of Information Act request to have used an account with the pseudonym "Richard Windsor" for official business. She retired this year shortly after the agency's inspector general opened an investigation.

Republicans remembered that when they began looking into a highly unusual quid pro quo that Perez struck with the city of St. Paul, Minn. In the 2011 deal, DOJ dropped out of a case against the city that could have cost St. Paul $200 million in exchange for the city dropping a civil rights case that was bound for the Supreme Court. Perez feared that case could limit the use of the legal theory of "disparate impact," which he favors.

One of the issues the GOP has been trying to find out is whether others in in the Justice Department, particularly those pursuing the case against St. Paul, knew that Perez was arranging a swap. A report by Issa's committee indicates that Perez was trying to keep some officials in the dark.

During an oversight committee interview, Perez said under oath that he "could not recall" if he had ever used a private email account while conducting government business.

The Justice Department subsequently told the committee in a letter that Perez had in fact used a nonofficial account to conduct official business approximately 1,200 times -- or on average once a day since he arrived at the agency. The letter further conceded that at least 34 of these incidents violated the Federal Records Act.

The Justice Department allowed committee staffers to look at the 34 emails in question last month but only at the department and only after the emails had been heavily redacted.

In a letter last week to Perez, Issa's frustration was evident: "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."

That stonewalling alarmed even Perez's main defender on the oversight committee, Cummings. Last week he signed a letter with Issa demanding that all 1,200 emails be turned over by May 10 "in unredacted form."

On the deadline day, the committee received a letter from DOJ offering to show them, well, nothing.

"The Department of Justice, to whom the subpoena was not addressed, did write to offer that committee staff could review ... the 'to,' 'from,' and date fields of the emails -- but not the substance," committee spokesman Ali Ahmad told The Washington Examiner. "This does not comply with the subpoena."

Perez was clearly hoping this issue was too wonky and inside-the-Beltway baseball to damage his chances of Senate confirmation. That may have changed with the past week's revelations that the IRS was targeting Tea Party groups and the Justice Department secretly obtained the Associated Press' phone records.

Media attention is finally being focused on this administration's penchant for secrecy and bending the rules.

Sean Higgins (shiggins@washingtonexaminer.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @seanghiggins.

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