A March letter by the Maryland Chamber of Commerce endorsing Labor Secretary nominee Thomas Perez was secretly written by a top official at the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, newly-released internal emails show.
The person who actually wrote the chamber’s Perez endorsement was Scott Jensen, the department’s deputy secretary. Jensen is a close ally of Perez. Jensen was a special assistant to Perez during the latter’s tenure as DLLR secretary.
Maryland Chamber President and CEO Kathleen Snyder made only two minor changes to Jensen’s draft endorsement letter, including correcting Jensen’s misspelling of her name before publishing it with her signature.
Jensen’s emails were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by Americans for Limited Government, a conservative nonprofit group. The emails, which are from Jensen’s state-provided account, were subsequently provided to the Washington Examiner.
No explicit quid pro quo is mentioned in the exchanges between Jensen and Snyder, but the fact a top state official secretly put words in the mouth of a regulated group’s CEO endorsing the Perez nomination raises serious ethical issues. If nothing else, the incident points to the extraordinarily close relations between state regulators and the business community.
Snyder initially told the Examiner today that, while she wrote the letter at the urging of Jensen and others in the state, the wording was hers. She maintained this despite being told the wording of the draft and final letter were nearly identical.
“I never just take what somebody writes for me. I think I gave my perspective on how we worked with Secretary Perez when he was at DLLR,” she said, adding: “Have you checked word-by-word?”
Told only two changes were made from Jensen’s draft, Snyder then claimed she “probably suggested to Scott that if he drafted something for me based on my conversation with him about our Maryland Chamber’s experience working with Tom Perez, then that’s what he did.”
She reiterated her strong support of Perez and added that there was no quid pro quo between her and Jensen.
“I don’t operate like that and I don’t think the department operates like that,” she said.
Jensen told the Washington Examiner he wrote the original draft for Snyder and that he often worked closely together with her and the chamber.
“I drafted it, yes. Kathy Snyder asked me to do that. She reviewed it and made superficial changes,” Jensen said. “No, I don’t think there was anything wrong with that because we believe that the policies that Perez will be pursuing are good for Marylanders.”
He added later: “I asked her if she would be willing to support Tom Perez’s nomination and she said, yeah, I would. And that’s how it happened.”
Richard Manning of Americans for Limited Government was skeptical.
“It is more than a little unseemly that a Maryland state official would be contacting groups that represent the regulated community and ask them to engage in lobbying the federal government in support of a nominee who would also regulate their member companies,” he said.
“Given the significance attached to the Maryland Chamber letter, the revelation that it was obtained by someone who directly regulated their businesses has the strong odor of coercion,” Manning said.
The emails indicate that Jensen used his state office to lobby the federal government while on official time. All of the emails were sent using his official account. Jensen said he does not have a private email account.
Maryland Law is unclear on the legality of using a state office to lobby on behalf of a nominee for federal office. Section 15-506 of the Maryland Public Ethics Law prohibits officials from using the ”prestige of one’s office for one’s private gain or that of another.”
An official guidance memo also cautions that “whether particular circumstances constitute official actions … may not always be obvious.”
Dan Epstein, executive director of the nonprofit watchdog group Cause of Action, said the emails raise questions of whether Jensen was lobbying for Perez. “Was he using the Chamber of Commerce in Maryland as an avenue to do things he could not do?”
The letter has since been cited repeatedly by Perez’s defenders to refute critic’s claim that is a radical liberal and to suggest he is a pragmatist with strong support in the business community.
Senate Health, Education, Labor Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., have both read from the Snyder leader during the panel’s confirmation hearings on Perez. Harkin and Mikulski spokesmen failed to respond to a request for comment.
The committee approved Perez’s nomination on a party-line vote last month. A full Senate vote has not been scheduled.
The internal Maryland Labor Department emails show that Jensen sent Snyder a message on Friday, March 15, thanking for her for unspecified earlier help on Perez’s nomination and urging her to write an official letter on his behalf. The email included a draft version of the five paragraph letter.
Jensen’s proposed draft said, in part: “Mr. Perez has proved himself to be a pragmatic public official who was willing to bring differing voices together. The Chamber had the opportunity to work with Mr. Perez on an array of issues of importance to employers in Maryland, from unemployment and workforce development to the housing and foreclosure crisis.”
It continued: “Despite differences of opinion, Mr. Perez was always willing to allow all parties to be heard and we found him to be fair and collaborative. I believe that our experiences with him here in Maryland bode well for the nation.”
Snyder responded that day saying she was out of the state and couldn’t open the attached document right then but would get to it early the following week. On March 19, Snyder emailed the chamber’s official endorsement letter to Jensen.
“I LOVE YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!,” Jensen wrote back. “Thank you so much.”
She had made only two changes to his draft. In addition to correcting the spelling of her name, she added “Maryland” before one of the references to the chamber.
Otherwise, the Maryland Chamber of Commerce’s letter is identical to what the deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation suggested they write. It even has the same date, March 15, even though Snyder sent it out on the 19th.
Jensen forwarded the letter to several people that day, including Perez himself.
“[F]yi, Tom. Kathy came through. More than any other this was hard for her. If you can here’s her cell: [Redacted],” Jensen wrote.
Perez responded: “You are a star! Thx so much. I had written this off. I will absolutely call her.”
Perez’s nomination has been controversial from the start. Currently, the Justice Department’s assistant attorney general for civil rights, Perez has been criticized by Republicans for an unusual quid pro quo deal he struck last year with the City of St. Paul, Minnesota.
Perez arranged to have the DOJ drop out of a whistleblower case that could have cost the city $200 million in exchange for the city dropping a case bound for the Supreme Court that could have limited the use of the legal theory of “disparate impact,” which Perez favors.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has issued a subpoena to Perez seeking emails from his private email account in which he conducted official DOJ business. A DOJ letter to the committee said there are 2,000 such emails.
Republicans believe the emails may shed light on the St. Paul case. Perez has refused requests by Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings, D-Md., that he turn them over.