Justice Department official Thomas 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 the Bush administration brought against the New Black Panther Party, an inspector general's report said Tuesday.
The report also concluded that Perez did not intentionally mislead the commission.
President Barack Obama is poised to select Perez, head of the department's civil rights division, to be the next labor secretary, according to two people familiar with the deliberation process. The investigation's findings could complicate the Senate confirmation process if he becomes the nominee.
"We found that Perez's testimony did not reflect the entire story regarding the involvement of political appointees," said the newly released report by the Justice Department's inspector general.
"We did not find that Perez intentionally misled the commission," said the IG. "Nevertheless, given he was testifying as a department witness before the commission, we believe that Perez should have sought more details ... about the nature and extent of the participation of political employees in the NBPP decision in advance of his testimony before the commission."
The report said Perez left out from his testimony that Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli and a deputy associate attorney general were involved in consultations about the decision.
IG Michael Horowitz said there are no rules prohibiting political appointees from participating in such decision making and that Perez did not know about the incidents when he testified to the commission in May 2010. Perez had not been confirmed by the Senate at the time of the decisions on the issue in early 2009. According to the report, the two political appointees set clear limits on what subordinates could decide on the Panther case - including barring them from dismissing it in its entirety - without seeking additional approval from Perrelli's office.
The IG's report stemmed in part from the handling of the 2008 case in which the Justice Department sued two members of the New Black Panther Party, the NBPP's national chairman and the group itself. After the change in administrations, the Justice Department asked the court to dismiss the suit against three of the four defendants.
The IG found the department acted properly.
"The decision to dismiss three of the four defendants and to seek more narrowly tailored injunctive relief against the fourth was based on a good faith assessment of the law and facts of the case and had a reasonable basis," concluded the IG's report.
According to the report, the IG's office interviewed Perez, who told investigators he did not believe that the incidents constituted political appointees being "involved" in the decision.
The report said the IG's office believes that the facts do show "involvement" in the decision by political appointees within the ordinary meaning of that word. The IG said Perez's statements on behalf of the department - that political appointees were briefed on and could have overruled this decision - did not capture the full extent of that involvement.
Labor and civil rights groups rushed to defend Perez, seeking to bolster his standing ahead of the expected nomination for labor secretary.
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said the IG's report shows "what's clear to anyone following the actions of the Department of Justice in recent years: that Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez has restored integrity to the Civil Rights Division and its Voting Section." Lynn Rhinehart, co-general counsel of the AFL-CIO, said the report confirms that Tom Perez is a strong, effective leader who restored integrity to the voting rights program at the Department of Justice."
Separately, the wide-ranging IG report also concluded that deep ideological polarization in the Justice Department's voting rights section in both the Bush and Obama administrations fueled disputes that in some instances harmed the office's proper functioning. The department's inspector general said that on some occasions the disputes involved harassment of employees and managers.
Despite the polarization, the IG said its review did not substantiate claims of political or racial bias in decision-making.
Mistreatment of employees based on their political ideology "is never appropriate, and in the past several years we have implemented a number of measures" to address the problem, Perez said in a response.
The voting section in the department's civil rights division reviews cases where the redrawing of district lines can change the composition of congressional delegations. It also reviews voter ID laws that can make it easier or more difficult to cast ballots in elections.
"We found that people on different sides of internal disputes about particular cases in the voting section have been quick to suspect those on the other side of partisan motivations, heightening the sense of polarization," said the IG's report. "The cycles of actions and reactions that we found resulted from this mistrust, were, in many instances, incompatible with the proper functioning of a component of the department."