WASHINGTON - Under President Bush, the Justice Department has backed laws that narrow minority voting rights and pressed U.S. attorneys to investigate voter fraud - policies that critics say have been intended to suppress Democratic votes.
Bush, his deputy chief of staff, Karl Rove, and other Republican political advisers have highlighted voting rights issues and what Rove has called the "growing problem" of election fraud by Democrats since Bush took power in the tumultuous election of 2000, a race ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Since 2005, McClatchy Newspapers has found, Bush has appointed at least three U.S. attorneys who had worked in the Justice Department's civil rights division when it was rolling back longstanding voting-rights policies aimed at protecting predominantly poor, minority voters.
Another newly installed U.S. attorney, Tim Griffin in Little Rock, Ark., was accused of participating in efforts to suppress Democratic votes in Florida during the 2004 presidential election while he was a research director for the Republican National Committee. He's denied any wrongdoing.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the four U.S. attorneys weren't chosen only because of their backgrounds in election issues, but "we would expect any U.S. attorney to prosecute voting fraud."
Taken together, critics say, the replacement of the U.S. attorneys, the voter-fraud campaign and the changes in Justice Department voting rights policies suggest that the Bush administration may have been using its law enforcement powers for partisan political purposes.
The Bush administration's emphasis on voter fraud is drawing scrutiny from the Democratic Congress, which has begun investigating the firings of eight U.S. attorneys - two of whom say that their ousters may have been prompted by the Bush administration's dissatisfaction with their investigations of alleged Democratic voter fraud.
Bush has said he's heard complaints from Republicans about some U.S. attorneys' "lack of vigorous prosecution of election fraud cases," and administration e-mails have shown that Rove and other White House officials were involved in the dismissals and in selecting a Rove aide to replace one of the U.S. attorneys. Nonetheless, Bush has refused to permit congressional investigators to question Rove and others under oath.
Last April, while the Justice Department and the White House were planning the firings, Rove gave a speech in Washington to the Republican National Lawyers Association. He ticked off 11 states that he said could be pivotal in the 2008 elections. Bush has appointed new U.S. attorneys in nine of them since 2005: Florida, Colorado, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Arkansas, Michigan, Nevada and New Mexico. U.S. attorneys in the latter four were among those fired.
Rove thanked the audience for "all that you are doing in those hot spots around the country to ensure that the integrity of the ballot is protected." He added, "A lot in American politics is up for grabs."
The department's civil rights division, for example, supported a Georgia voter identification law that a court later said discriminated against poor, minority voters. It also declined to oppose an unusual Texas redistricting plan that helped expand the Republican majority in the House of Representatives. That plan was partially reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Frank DiMarino, a former federal prosecutor who served six U.S. attorneys in Florida and Georgia during an 18-year Justice Department career, said that too much emphasis on voter fraud investigations "smacks of trying to use prosecutorial power to investigate and potentially indict political enemies."
Several former voting rights lawyers, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of antagonizing the administration, said the division's political appointees reversed the recommendations of career lawyers in key cases and transferred or drove out most of the unit's veteran attorneys.
Bradley Schlozman, who was the civil rights division's deputy chief, agreed in 2005 to reverse the career staff's recommendations to challenge a Georgia law that would have required voters to pay $20 for photo IDs and in some cases travel as far as 30 miles to obtain the ID card.
A federal judge threw out the Georgia law, calling it an unconstitutional, Jim Crow-era poll tax.
In an interview, Schlozman, who was named interim U.S. attorney in Kansas City in November 2005, said he merely affirmed a subordinate's decision to overturn the career staff's recommendations.
He said it was "absolutely not true" that he drove out career lawyers. "What I tried to do was to depoliticize the hiring process," Schlozman said. "We hired people across the political spectrum."
Former voting rights section chief Joseph Rich, however, said longtime career lawyers whose views differed from those of political appointees were routinely "reassigned or stripped of major responsibilities."
In testimony to a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing this week, Rich said that 20 of the 35 attorneys in the voting rights section have been transferred to other jobs or have left their jobs since April 2005 and a staff of 26 civil rights analysts who reviewed state laws for discrimination has been slashed to 10.
He said he has yet to see evidence of voter fraud on a scale that warrants voter ID laws, which he said are "without exception ... supported and pushed by Republicans and objected to by Democrats. I believe it is clear that this kind of law tends to suppress the vote of lower-income and minority voters."
Other former voting-rights section lawyers said that during the tenure of Alex Acosta, who served as the division chief from the fall of 2003 until he was named interim U.S. attorney in Miami in the summer of 2005, the department didn't file a single suit alleging that local or state laws or election rules diluted the votes of African-Americans. In a similar time period, the Clinton administration filed six such cases.
Those kinds of cases, Rich said, are "the guts of the Voting Rights Act."
During this week's House judiciary subcommittee hearing, critics recounted lapses in the division's enforcement. A Citizens Commission on Civil Rights study found that "the enforcement record of the voting section during the Bush administration indicates this traditional priority has been downgraded significantly, if not effectively ignored."
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., who chaired the hearing, said, "The more stringent requirements you put on voting in order to get rid of alleged voter fraud, the more you're cutting down on legitimate people voting."
Acosta, the first Hispanic to head the civil rights division, said he emphasized helping non-English speaking voters cast ballots. In 2005, he told a House committee that he made an unprecedented effort to monitor balloting in 2004 to watch for discrimination against minorities.
Justice spokesman Roehrkasse said Acosta "has an impressive legal background, including extensive experience in government and the private sector" and as a federal appeals court clerk.
A third former civil rights division employee, Matt Dummermuth, 33, was nominated to be U.S. attorney in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, last December. Before his appointment, he was counsel to the assistant attorney general for civil rights. He was a special assistant to the civil rights chief from 2002 to 2004.
Details of his involvement in reviewing voter rights couldn't be determined, and Dummermuth, a Harvard Law School graduate, didn't return calls seeking comment.
Bush administration officials have said that no single reason led to the firings of the eight U.S. attorneys. But two of those who were forced to resign said they thought they might have been punished for failing to prosecute Democrats prior to the 2006 congressional elections or for not vigorously pursuing Republican allegations of voter irregularities in Washington state and New Mexico.
Former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias of New Mexico has said he thought that "the voter fraud issue was the foundation" for his firing and that complaints about his failure to pursue corruption matters involving Democrats were "the icing on the cake."
John McKay, the ousted U.S. attorney for western Washington state, looked into allegations of voter fraud against Democrats during the hotly contested governor's race in 2004. He said that later, when top Bush aides interviewed him for a federal judgeship, he was asked to respond to criticism of his inquiry in which no charges were brought. He didn't get the judgeship.
Rove talked about the Northwest region in his speech last spring to the Republican lawyers and voiced concern about the trend toward mail-in ballots and online voting. He also questioned the legitimacy of voter rolls in Philadelphia and Milwaukee.
One audience member asked Rove whether he'd "thought about using the bully pulpit of the White House to talk about election reform and an election integrity agenda that would put the Democrats back on the defensive."
"Yes, it's an interesting idea," Rove responded.
Despite the GOP concerns, Bud Cummins, the Republican-appointed U.S. attorney in Arkansas who was fired, said he had "serious doubts" that any U.S. attorney was failing to aggressively pursue voter fraud.
"What they're responding to is party chairmen and activists who from the beginning of time go around paranoid that the other party is stealing the election," Cummins said. "It sounds like to me that they were merely responding to a lot of general carping from the party, who had higher expectations once the Republican appointees filled these posts that there would be a lot of voting fraud investigations. Their expectations were unrealistic."
Griffin, the interim U.S. attorney in Arkansas who's replaced Cummins, was a Rove protege and a former Republican National Committee research director. He was accused of being part of an attempt to wipe likely Democratic voters off the rolls in Florida in 2004 if they were homeless or military personnel.
Griffin couldn't be reached for comment.
Ed Gillespie, then the RNC chairman, said the Republican Party was following election laws and trying to investigate voter fraud by sending out mailers to addresses of registered voters. If the notices came back, he said, the names were entered into a database and checked to see if the voters were listing actual residences.
"The Republican National Committee does not engage in voter suppression," he said. "The fact that someone was trying to prevent voter fraud should not disqualify someone from being U.S. attorney."
McClatchy Newspapers correspondents Tish Wells and Ron Hutcheson contributed to this report.