Republicans have ramped up attacks on President Obama’s pick to head the Labor Department, releasing a scathing report that says Thomas E. Perez abused his power and negotiated a dubious deal while serving as head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
The report, dropped Sunday — four days before Mr. Perez’s nomination hearing on Capitol Hill — gives Republicans fresh material in their long-standing fight against the assistant attorney general.
Democrats and the Justice Department defended Mr. Perez, saying he did nothing wrong, unethical or out of the ordinary for his position.
The report accuses Mr. Perez of persuading the city of St. Paul, Minn., to drop a housing discrimination case that was headed for the Supreme Court. In exchange, the Justice Department agreed to withdraw two whistleblower cases against the city that Republicans say could have won up to $200 million in settlements for taxpayers.
The Republicans said Mr. Perez was wrong to ram through his decision to drop the cases over objections from others in his department and that he later tried to cover up the quid pro quo deal.
The report also says Mr. Perez’s move left career Justice officials “confused and frustrated” and that they described the situation as “weirdness” and “ridiculous.”
“Mr. Perez’s conduct has stained the integrity of the Justice Department and created serious doubt about its commitment to protecting the legal rights of whistleblowers who come forward with legitimate information about abuses of taxpayer funds,” said House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa of California, one of three Republicans who commissioned the report.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican, and Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, also helped lead the investigation of Mr. Perez.
Mr. Perez has defended his reason for wanting St. Paul to drop its case. He told investigators that he feared an adverse ruling from the Supreme Court would jeopardize the government’s standing on future housing discrimination cases, The Associated Press reported.
The Justice Department said in a statement that litigation decisions made by the department under Mr. Perez “were in the best interests of the United States and were consistent with the department’s legal, ethical and professional responsibility obligations.”
“The decision to decline to intervene in these cases followed an examination of such factors and permitted the relators to continue to pursue their claims against the city,” the statement said.
“Three staff briefings, 24 hours of additional testimony and 3,500 pages of documents provided to the [congressional] committees make clear that the department’s decisions in these cases were based upon appropriate considerations.”
Democrats on the House oversight and justice committees have been quick to defend Mr. Perez. They say evidence suggests that he and other Justice Department officials acted professionally “to advance the interests of civil rights and effectively combat the scourge of discrimination in housing.”
“Rather than identifying any inappropriate conduct by Mr. Perez or other department officials, it appears that the accusations against Mr. Perez are part of a broader political campaign to undermine the legal safeguards against discrimination that Mr. Perez was protecting,” said a memo prepared by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the senior Democrat on the House oversight committee, and Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House judiciary panel.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat, added that the Republican attacks are nothing more than a political “witch hunt.”
“The real issue here is the GOP wants to derail a highly competent presidential nominee from getting a Cabinet position because he effectively enforced civil rights law,” he said. “This is just the politics of personal destruction.”
This isn’t Mr. Perez’s first time to be embroiled in controversy. The Justice Department section under his watch has been hampered by racially charged ideological divisions, a recent inspector general report said.
The IG report, released in March, states that Mr. Perez 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 in a lawsuit that the George W. Bush administration brought against the New Black Panther Party.
The report said Mr. Perez didn’t intentionally mislead the commission and that the department acted properly. But Mr. Grassley said the investigation suggested a troubling “politicization and polarization” of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
• Sean Lengell can be reached at email@example.com.
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