WASHINGTON — A former Justice Department political appointee blocked career lawyers from filing at least three lawsuits charging local and county governments with violating the voting rights of African-Americans and other minorities, seven former senior department employees charged Monday.
Hans von Spakovsky also derailed at least two investigations into possible voter discrimination, the former employees of the Voting Rights Section said in interviews and in a letter to the Senate Rules and Administration Committee. They urged the panel to reject von Spakovsky's nomination to the Federal Election Commission.
White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore said that von Spakovsky wouldn't comment on the latest criticism. She said he's "preparing a point-by-point rebuttal that will address these issues" and "looks forward to working with members of the Senate during the confirmation process."
Von Spakovsky blocked a major suit against a St. Louis suburb and two other suits against rural governments in South Carolina and Georgia and halted at least two investigations of election laws that appeared to suppress minority voting, one of them in Wyoming, said Joseph Rich, the former voting rights section chief.
The former employees' letter also challenged von Spakovsky's candor during his confirmation hearing before a Senate committee last week, when he portrayed himself as a middle manager in the Civil Rights Division who didn't make policy or personnel decisions. Von Spakovsky, who's served as a presidential recess appointee to the FEC since early 2006 and is seeking a full six-year term, also played down his role in several controversial decisions.
In the letter to California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the panel's chairwoman, the former employees said that von Spakovsky acted as the "de facto voting section chief" from early 2003 until late 2005, spending virtually all of his time on voting matters and promoting "partisan political interests."
"We have never seen a political appointee exercise this level of control over the day-to-day operations of the voting section," they said.
It was the second letter in the last eight days in which former employees of the Voting Rights Section, including Rich and former deputy chief Robert Kengle, urged the Senate panel to reject the nomination. Feinstein told von Spakovsky during the hearing that the criticism from former department officials would make it difficult for him to win confirmation.
Monday's letter included the first allegations that von Spakovsky torpedoed suits and investigations over alleged state, county or local laws that diminish the voting strength of African-Americans, Native Americans or other minorities or prevent them from voting altogether.
Von Spakovsky, the letter said, stripped the voting rights section chief of his authority to open investigations of discrimination without his superiors' approval.
The letter also challenged von Spakovsky's testimony about a letter that the department sent to Arizona Secretary of State Janice Brewer in April 2005. Contrary to his testimony, the former employees alleged, von Spakovsky didn't seek input from career staff members before he notified Brewer that provisional ballots didn't need to be offered to voters who failed to present identification — a reversal of the department's previous interpretation of a 2002 federal election reform law.
Deputy Assistant Attorney General Sheldon Bradshaw signed the letter on his last day in that job. Nearly six months later, the department retracted that legal opinion.
Neil Bradley, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project, said the ACLU pursued two cases. It sued Fremont County, Wyo., on behalf of Native Americans in 2005, leading to a court settlement, and filed a similar suit against Lexington County, S.C., which is awaiting a court ruling.
Meanwhile, Democratic Sens. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island asked Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to order a Justice Department investigation into allegations that a former White House aide and others attempted to suppress minority votes in the 2004 presidential election.
The allegations revolve around whether Tim Griffin, a former aide to White House political strategist Karl Rove, engaged in "vote caging" — in which a political campaign sends mail marked "do not forward" to a targeted group of eligible voters. Letters that bounce back are then used to challenge those voters' legitimacy, limiting them to provisional ballots that may not be counted.
Griffin, who last year was named the interim U.S. attorney for Arkansas but left the post last week, has denied involvement in caging. In their letter, Kennedy and Whitehouse cited testimony in which Monica Goodling, a former counsel to Gonzales, said she'd discussed concerns about Griffin's involvement in caging with Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty.
A Justice Department spokesman declined comment on the letter, which was copied to Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine and to Marshall Jarrett, the director of the department's Office of Professional Responsibility, who jointly are looking into allegations of political partisanship in the agency.