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Ex-Justice Dept. Attorneys Accuse Bush Admin of Restricting African-American Vote to Favor Republicans

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Another scandal is brewing inside Alberto Gonzales’s Justice Department. Former Justice Department attorneys have publicly accused the Bush administration of politicizing the department’s Civil Rights Division which was formed 50 years ago to protect the voting rights of African Americans. According to a recent report by the McClatchy newspapers, the Bush administration has pursued an aggressive legal effort to restrict voter turnout in key battleground states in ways that favor Republican political candidates. We’re joined by Joseph Rich, the former head of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, and Bertha Lewis, executive director of New York Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who told reporters Monday he would not step down because of the scandal involving the firing of eight federal prosecutors. Earlier in the day, President Bush voiced support for Gonzales and praised his appearance last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The attorney general went up and gave a very candid assessment and answered every question he could possibly answer, honestly answer, and in a way that increased my confidence in his ability to do the job.

AMY GOODMAN: While last week’s Senate hearing focused on the firing of the eight U.S. attorneys, another related scandal is brewing inside Alberto Gonzales’s Justice Department. Former Justice Department attorneys have publicly accused the Bush administration of politicizing the department’s Civil Rights Division which was formed half a century ago to protect the voting rights of African Americans. According to a recent report by the McClatchy newspapers, the Bush administration has pursued an aggressive legal effort to restrict voter turnout in key battleground states in ways that favor Republican political candidates.

The administration did this in part by alleging widespread election fraud in largely Democratic areas and to push new voter ID rules. Civil rights advocates contend the administration’s policies were intended to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of poor and minority voters who tend to support Democrats.

At least two U.S. attorneys were fired after failing to bring voter fraud cases. Last year The Boston Globe reported the Bush administration is filling the permanent ranks of the Civil Rights Division with lawyers who have strong conservative credentials, but little experience in civil rights. This has led to the Civil Rights Division focusing more on cases alleging reverse discrimination against whites and religious discrimination against Christians.

The former head of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department joins us now on the program. Joseph Rich worked at the Justice Department from 1968 to 2005. He joins us in Washington, D.C., where he now works for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Here in New York in our firehouse studio, we’re joined by Bertha Lewis. She is the executive director of New York ACORN, also co-chairs the Working Families Party. And we welcome you both to Democracy Now!

Joseph Rich, you have written an op-ed column about this. First of all, talk about the attorneys general you have worked for over time.

JOSEPH RICH: Well, I was at the Department of Justice in the Civil Rights Division right out of law school in ’68 and worked 24 of the 36 years I was there under Republican administrations, starting with Ramsey Clark, John Mitchell, through Ed Meese, Janet Reno and finally this administration with Alberto Gonzales and John Ashcroft.

This administration is the first administration that I felt had politicized the department to the extent that it has. And I had been the head of the Voting Section for the last six years that I was there, from 1999 to 2005, and I think the Voting Section has always been a section that is of political interest, but never had been politicized to the extent that it was in this administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what you see happening right now? Why do you see it, and where do you see it happening?

JOSEPH RICH: Well, when I was there through 2005, there was two major things that concerned me the most. The first was, in the voting area, some of the major decisions made were contrary to recommendations from the career people, such as myself, and in my judgment were made for partisan political reasons. These were redistricting decisions in places like Mississippi and Texas. There was a voter ID law in Georgia that was decided just after I left the department in 2005. But in all the years I was there, the Civil Rights Division prided itself on avoiding partisan political decision making and indeed tried to focus just on the legal principles involved.

Secondly, this administration had a disdain and attacked career people that they felt was disloyal, more than any other administration that I had to deal with over my long career. And this led to the removal of section chiefs. It led to a real breakdown in any good relationship between political and career people that is necessary for a Department of Justice agency to have. Without that give and take, you’re not going to get good decision making. It led to a real loss of the career-based, real guts of the Civil Rights Division. After I left the Voting Section, 55 to 60 percent of the attorneys have either left or transferred out of the Voting Section. That, coupled with a very politicized new hiring policy that was implemented in 2002, has changed the nature of the personnel in the division from one that was a longtime committed group of attorneys to civil rights enforcement to one that has very little experience in civil rights and does not have that commitment, and indeed is — a good deal of the hiring is done on very politicized bases, as particularly a story in The Boston Globe last summer revealed, just the loss of people who had civil rights experience and the increase in people that were ideologically aligned with the Republican Party.

AMY GOODMAN: In your piece, your op-ed column in the Los Angeles Times, you say at least two of the recently fired U.S. attorneys, John McKay in Seattle and David Iglesias in New Mexico, were targeted largely because they refused to prosecute voting fraud cases that implicated Democrats or voters likely to vote for Democrats. And then you also talk about the case of Bradley Schlozman. Explain.

JOSEPH RICH: Well, another thing that happened in this administration right from the outset was a great priority on voter fraud. It continued to increase through 2004 and then, I think, particularly after I left in 2006. The priority on voter fraud — voter fraud is done by the Criminal Division. The Civil Rights Division works on voter intimidation based on race during elections. And the increase in emphasis on voter fraud became more and more apparent, to the point that last year Bradley Schlozman, who had been one of the ones responsible for politicizing the Civil Rights Division — he had been there from 2003 to 2006. He was one of the first — I think the first — interim U.S. attorney appointed under the PATRIOT Act, that gave the attorney general the authority to appoint people without confirmation indefinitely. He was appointed in Missouri, a battleground state in 2006.

Five days before the election last fall in Missouri, he brought five voter fraud cases against members of — or I think employees of ACORN for alleged voter fraud. This was contrary to longstanding department policy not to bring or even investigate voter fraud cases shortly before an election because of the sensitivity to having any impact on elections. The longstanding policy was one in which, if there was evidence of voter fraud, the investigation would take place, unless there was a real emergency, after the election.

The fact that that happened in Missouri, the fact that the United States attorneys in New Mexico and Washington, who were following the priority of investigating vigorously voter fraud and yet were removed because they did not indict, is extremely disturbing, because they were doing their job, but in their professional judgment they did not have evidence to bring the cases, and that appears to have been a major factor in their removal.

AMY GOODMAN: Bertha Lewis, you’re executive director of New York ACORN, how does ACORN fit into this picture?

BERTHA LEWIS: Well, I think we are the poster child for the right. We have been defamed, and case after case has been brought against us, because we’re very successful in registering African-American, Latino, immigrant, low- and moderate-income folks. And ever since 2003, we have been the target of what believe are partisan right-wing attacks. And for six years, the Bush administration has come after ACORN.

We registered a million people in 2004. We registered 540,000 in 2006, again in poor, African-American, Latino, immigrant communities. And time after time, partisan attacks have come against us alleging voter fraud. When we register folks to vote, you know, we’re very meticulous about it. We try to work with the local board of election officials and say, you know, “Work with us. Tell us if there’s anything that you find amiss.” We, in fact, have been very vigilant in firing any employee that we think has done a sloppy job or fraudulent job of voter registration and even worked with folks to prosecute those folks.

But it seems as though it doesn’t really matter, because ACORN is successful — we are supposed to have a radical agenda — and I think it is because for 37 years we have been empowering the powerless with a voice. And so, we’ve been the targets in Florida, in Ohio and, we believe, in Washington state and in New Mexico.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened in New Mexico, when you say you’re the target?

BERTHA LEWIS: Again, the attorney really could not bring a case against ACORN. He was charged —

AMY GOODMAN: This was David Iglesias.

BERTHA LEWIS: This is David Iglesias, and also in Washington state, Mr. McKay. They were both charged with, go after ACORN, find us a case, find us a way to prosecute them, because in every case, where allegations have been made against us, never a shred of evidence, no prosecution, cases had been thrown out. And, in fact, we found that people just wanted to make the right-wing case against us. And when they said, “We don’t have any proof here. We don’t have a case,” they were let go of.

AMY GOODMAN: And these were Republican attorneys, U.S. attorneys.

BERTHA LEWIS: Republican attorneys. Republican attorneys.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened in Florida and Ohio?

BERTHA LEWIS: Well, in Florida, shortly after the 2004 election, when we had registered a million people around the country, once again —

AMY GOODMAN: Florida was Jeb Bush’s — Florida at the time, he was the governor.

BERTHA LEWIS: And in Florida and Ohio, you have to understand that part of what our voter registration was about was putting ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage. Now, if you’re registering folks to increase voter turnout, which we absolutely do, we had allegations, oh, by disgruntled employees and people that we absolutely fired because we do quality control, saying, “Oh, you know, ACORN just participates in all kinds of voter fraud.”

And here’s what gets me about the media. There’s no real investigation, there’s no corroboration. The right-wing media, whether it’s blogs or Fox or Wall Street Journal, just decides that they are going to put out these allegations as fact. And so, folks launched an investigation in Florida. When we finally said, “Well, let’s go to trial. Let’s see the evidence,” all of a sudden, our accusers said, “Oh, never mind. We’re going to drop the case.” The judge even, in Florida, said, “How dare you? Don’t you understand that this is bordering on defamation?” and, in fact, told our accusers, “You have to sign a statement saying everything that we said about ACORN is wrong. There really was no voter fraud. All of these allegations are improper. Thank you very much.”

However, the right-wing media and these partisan forces continue to make these allegations, as if they’re facts. We could be, you know, proven innocent. Doesn’t matter. We got our headlines. We were able to put a chilling effect on voter registration. But ACORN has fought back time and time again. We’re not going to be deterred. What bothers me is, this kind of intimidation may affect organizations that have not been around as long as we have or are smaller than we are.

AMY GOODMAN: What most affected — what most surprised you by the hearing last week and by this whole scandal unfolding?

BERTHA LEWIS: Well, we’re happy, in a way, because finally what we have been saying for years is that, yes, Virginia, there’s a vast right-wing conspiracy. This kind of brought it to light. And in a way, if the firing of McKay and Iglesias actually cracks this thing open, and where ACORN and other groups besides us can be vindicated for actually pursuing opening up democracy and not closing it down, then we’re happy. We’re sorry to see them go, but, you know, Attorney General Gonzales, he is just a henchman in Bush’s administration’s attack on us and other organizations like ours.

AMY GOODMAN: Joe Rich, do you think the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, should step down?

JOSEPH RICH: I wouldn’t comment on that. What I wanted to add to this is, I think, an important factor in the way the agency called the Election Assistance Commission has been working on voter fraud. It’s another aspect of what I see as a — this kind of obsession on voter fraud, in a way that I think has been designed to suppress the vote.

The Election Assistance Commission was created in 2000 by the Help America Vote Act to look into election issues. Last year, they contracted for a study of voter fraud. The study came back. It concluded that there was not that much evidence of voter fraud, very little. The report never was released. Instead, the report was slightly rewritten in a way that they thought that they should do more study, and it wasn’t until recently that that study came to light, just a couple of weeks ago.

Similarly, there was a second study by a Rutgers professor that the EAC had commissioned that looked into the issue of what impact voter identification laws had on turnout. And the conclusion was that there was a significant reduction in turnout where there are voter ID laws, something that has been the biggest concern of people about voter ID laws, that they suppress the vote, particularly of poor and minority voters. This report also was not — it was rejected, and they have asked for more studies.

So you have a pattern of a commission that is supposed to be looking into this issue rejecting studies that essentially are saying the emphasis on voter fraud is way overblown, and the growing use of voter ID laws is suppressing the vote, suppressing turnout. This is part of what is a pattern that’s emerging the more that this issue is looked into.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. I want to thank you, Joseph Rich, former chief of the Voting Section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division from 1999 to 2005, now working for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and Bertha Lewis, executive director of New York ACORN and co-chair of the Working Families Party. I want to thank you for both being with us.

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