Senate panel wants to question Justice Department official

WASHINGTON—The Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday asked a former acting Justice Department civil rights chief to answer accusations that he was a central figure in a broad Republican strategy to suppress the votes of Democratic-leaning minorities.

The committee, which has been investigating the firings of eight U.S. attorneys, asked Bradley Schlozman to appear voluntarily and describe his activities as a senior civil rights official and later as a U.S. attorney for Kansas City, Mo. Schlozman was a U.S. attorney there for one year.

"We believe the committee would benefit from hearing directly from you in order to gain a better understanding of the role voter fraud may have played in the administration's decisions to retain or remove certain U.S. attorneys," the panel's chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, the senior Republican on the committee, wrote Schlozman.

They noted that White House political guru Karl Rove voiced concern to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales last year about voter fraud in three states: Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and New Mexico. After that conversation, U.S. Attorney David Iglesias of New Mexico was added to the list of top prosecutors to be replaced. Two other fired prosecutors—in Arizona and Washington state—have said they believed their ousters were prompted in part by failure to aggressively pursue voter fraud cases.

A person familiar with the congressional inquiry, who insisted upon anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information, described Schlozman as a central figure because he ties together "all of the threads" of the investigation.

According to the person, Schlozman "cleaned out" career lawyers in the Civil Rights Division, replaced them with partisans and was involved in using "vote suppression mechanisms" of voting rights laws, including supporting actions to pare lists of registered voters and backing state laws that toughened voter identification requirements before the 2006 congressional election.

In recent weeks, McClatchy Newspapers has recounted this broad effort to use the power of the Justice Department to affect the outcome of the 2006 election. McClatchy found that, as U.S. attorney, Schlozman brought voter-fraud indictments days before the election against four people who were registering voters for a liberal group in Kansas City. The hotly contested election resulted in Missouri Republican Sen. Jim Talent's defeat, handing control of the U.S. Senate to Democrats.

The House of Representatives and Senate Judiciary committees already have questioned at least 14 former Justice Department officials in the broadening inquiry.

Former Justice Department civil rights lawyers have alleged that the legal campaign was aimed at making it harder for poor African-Americans, who tend to vote for Democrats, to meet voting requirements.

They've also accused Schlozman of illegally tilting the Justice Department hiring process to favor applicants with Republican or conservative credentials, such as membership in the Federalist Society, while he was its civil rights chief.

Schlozman was unavailable for comment Monday. Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said the department had received the committee's letter and is reviewing it. In an extensive statement, he said that the agency enforces the law "based on evidence, not partisan politics," and that U.S. attorneys are expected to bring "election and voter fraud cases where evidence of such fraud exists."

Leahy and Specter noted that Schlozman succeeded former U.S. attorney Todd Graves. They cited news reports that said Graves refused to endorse a Justice Department suit against the state of Missouri last November. The suit alleged that the state wasn't doing enough to prevent voter fraud by removing names of ineligible people from voter registration lists.

The committee is interested in reports that department officials considered adding Graves to the department's list of U.S. attorneys to be replaced, the letter said.

Leahy and Specter asked Schlozman to make himself "available ... for interviews, depositions or hearing testimony" and bring documents related to the investigation.

Both the House and Senate committees have threatened to issue subpoenas if Justice Department and White House officials don't cooperate with their inquiries.