Share

Opinion: Columnists

Sean Higgins: What Thomas Perez didn't do

By |

There are plenty of legitimate criticisms to make regarding President Obama's nominee to head the Labor Department, Thomas Perez. I covered some in my column last week. He's a radical leftist on civil rights and labor issues. He sued major universities for using the Amazon Kindle, because they were not then equipped to serve blind students. He even pressured one state to drop its special care and treatment program for HIV-positive prisoners on the grounds that they had a right to live among the general prison population. Nor is there any indication that he'll be an impartial arbiter of labor issues.

But some on the Right are now attacking Perez, Obama's assistant attorney general for civil rights, on something else altogether: namely, his involvement in the Justice Department's controversial decision to scale back a voter intimidation case against some self-styled Black Panthers who appeared at a Philadelphia polling station in 2008.

The problem is that Perez had no involvement in that decision. He wasn't even at the Department of Justice when it happened.

On Election Day 2008, two Panthers appeared outside a Philly polling spot on Election Day. They obstructed the entrance of some poll workers, used racial epithets and the one carried a billy club that he pointed at voters and poll watchers. Justice Department lawyers eventually filed charges against both of them, the leader of their group and the group itself. When the Panthers failed to respond, a federal court in Philadelphia entered a "default" judgment against all four defendants.

Shortly after the new administration took over in January, the Justice Department dismissed charges against all but the member who had brandished the club. He was let off with a narrowly tailored restraining order.

Perez's involvement in this is spelled out in a report by the Justice Department's inspector general, released last week. The IG found that, as the Associated Press put it, he "gave incomplete testimony to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights when he said the department's political leadership was not involved in the decision to dismiss three of the four defendants."

That does sound bad, and it prompted Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, to issue a statement that the findings were "troubling." Sen. David Vitter, R-La., went further, arguing in a statement that Perez should be viewed with "great suspicion" for his role in the case.

Rush Limbaugh managed to top them all, arguing on his show Monday: "He is the guy in the Department of Justice in the civil rights division who made the call not to prosecute the New Black Panthers." In the same show, Limbaugh was initially confused as to whether Perez was nominated to run the Labor Department or the National Labor Relations Board, a separate entity. That should give you a sense of how closely he has been following the issue.

Perez was not actually at the Justice Department when the action happened in the Black Panther case. The decision to drop the prosecutions was made by career Justice Department officials on May 15, 2009, according to the inspector general's report. Perez was not confirmed by the Senate to join the Justice Department until Oct. 9 of that year, about five months later.

Perez's main involvement in this controversy came after the fact. In testimony before the US Commission on Civil Rights and the House Judiciary Committee, he said that the decision to drop charges was not influenced by political appointees. As the OIG reported, that wasn't correct. Political appointees had in fact set "clear outer limits" on what the decision would be. Last year, an Appeals Court also came to the same conclusion in a Freedom of Information Act case related to the decision.

It's possible Perez was being evasive with his testimony, or he may just have not been fully informed on the issue. Given that it had all happened before he came to Justice, he would have had to rely on what others told him. In either case, it's not nearly as clear-cut as some would have it. It would be nearly impossible to prove that he "perjured" himself, as some on the Right have argued.

There are plenty of reasons to oppose Perez's nomination. His critics would do well to focus on things that directly involve Perez.

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

View article comments Leave a comment
Author:

Sean Higgins

Senior Writer
The Washington Examiner