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Labor Nominee's Civil Rights Work Draws Praise, Controversy

Tom Perez, President Obama's nominee to lead the Labor Department, has been an aggressive advocate for civil rights.
Jewel Samad
AFP/Getty Images
Tom Perez, President Obama's nominee to lead the Labor Department, has been an aggressive advocate for civil rights.

President Obama's nominee to lead the Labor Department has been one of the most aggressive advocates for civil rights in decades. Tom Perez prosecuted a record number of hate crimes cases and extracted huge settlements from banks that overcharged minorities for home loans.

But some Republican lawmakers say those same qualities give them pause about voting to confirm Perez as a Cabinet member.

'Making A Huge Difference'

As the son of Dominican immigrants, and a guy who helped put himself through Ivy League schools by working as a garbage collector, Perez knows something about climbing the ladder.

"Over my career, I've learned that true progress is possible if you keep an open mind, listen to all sides and focus on results," he said last month during the White House rollout of his nomination.

About those results: For more than three years, Perez has run the civil rights unit as an assistant attorney general at the Justice Department, where he has sued Texas and South Carolina over voting rights and searched for abusive law enforcement patterns in more than a dozen police departments.

Perez has done something else, too, says Mark Perriello, president of the American Association of People With Disabilities.

"All the work that he has done to secure the rights of people with disabilities to live independently in the community, to have access to polling, to have access to simple things like technology and watching Netflix with your family at home at night has been nothing less than stellar," Perriello says. "He is making a huge difference."

Perriello and dozens of other disability rights advocates have just launched a campaign to support Perez as labor secretary.

It's support the nominee may need to counter vocal opposition from Republican lawmakers like Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley.

"This person's going to have trouble — both through the committee process and on the floor," Grassley says. "He's got a lot of questions to answer."

A Quid Pro Quo?

Grassley and two House Republicans, Darrell Issa of California and Robert Goodlatte of Virginia, released a report late Sunday that blasted Perez for his role in what they call a quid pro quo last year, when the Justice Department agreed not to support a big whistle-blower lawsuit against St. Paul, Minn., for mishandling federal money.

The report drafted by congressional Republicans says Perez's testimony about the episode conflicts with that of other accounts from people inside the Justice Department and lawyers in Minnesota who worked on the issue.

"Perez's inconsistent testimony on a range of subjects calls into question the reliability of his testimony and raises questions about his truthfulness during his transcribed interview," the report said.

The report also alleges Perez engineered a plan to back away from the whistle-blower case without notifying his superiors or ethics lawyers at Justice about all the facts, and that he meddled with the decision-making by career lawyers in the government, while asking them to avoid putting the details in writing, placing "ideology over objectivity and politics over the rule of law."

The situation "confused and frustrated the career Justice Department attorneys ... who described the situation as 'weirdness,' 'ridiculous' and 'cover your head ping pong,' " the report added.

House Democrats countered that the criticism was political.

"Instead of identifying inappropriate conduct by Mr. Perez, it appears that the accusations against him are part of a broader political campaign to undermine the legal safeguards against discrimination that Mr. Perez was protecting," they said in a statement.

Justice Department spokeswoman Dena Iverson also defended Perez's actions in an emailed statement. "The resolution reached in these cases was in the best interests of the United States and consistent with the Department's broad discretion to consider policy and other factors — including pending litigation — in resolving False Claims Act [whistle-blower] matters," Iverson said.

She pointed out that private plaintiffs still were allowed to move forward with their whistle-blower case.

"The Department's decision was appropriate, and followed an examination of the relevant facts, legal, and policy considerations at issue, and following Mr. Perez's consultation with career ethics officers," she added.

St. Paul leaders agreed to drop their Supreme Court challenge to a legal tool known as disparate impact theory that the Justice Department often uses in housing discrimination cases. (For an explanation of disparate impact theory, check out this interview on NPR's Tell Me More. There's more background on the Supreme Court case and the St. Paul whistle-blower lawsuit in The Two-Way blog.)

Grassley says that kind of arrangement is not against the law, "but it looks pretty bad right now when somebody at that high level of government makes a quid pro quo that costs the taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars ... just for the purpose, for philosophical or ideological purposes, to get a case to the Supreme Court dropped."

Facing Questions

Asked if he would be prepared to block the Perez nomination, Grassley replied: "I'm at least prepared to resist any attempt to bring it up until we get all of our questions answered."

At his Senate confirmation hearing before the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Thursday, Perez could face even more questions about his management at the Justice Department's civil rights unit. The department's inspector general recently concluded the atmosphere there is filled with partisanship and bullying, though watchdogs say most of that trouble dates back a decade, before Perez arrived.

The Republican-led House Judiciary Committee is planning its own hearing this week on those issues. In a statement to NPR, Goodlatte, the committee chairman, said he was "shocked the President is moving forward with this nomination. ... Mr. Perez should face tough questions about this backroom deal he helped coordinate, his role in interfering with a Supreme Court case, and his mismanagement of the Civil Rights Division."

Supporters of Perez say the White House knew all about those controversies when it nominated him to lead the Labor Department. Obama says he wants Perez to play a big role in such issues as long-term unemployment, immigration and the minimum wage.

"His story," the president said last month, "reminds us of this country's promise: That if you're willing to work hard, it doesn't matter who you are, where you come from, what your last name is, you can make it if you try."

Perez is in line to become one of the highest-profile Latino Cabinet members in recent memory, if he can get past Senate Republicans.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.