WASHINGTON — Not long after President Bush was first sworn in, White House political guru Karl Rove and his lieutenants met with officials of nearly every Cabinet agency to brief top officials on the latest polling data and issues that could influence voters and key constituencies.
But the departments of Justice, Defense and State were exempt. Given their missions — to administer federal laws, protect national security and conduct foreign policy — it was considered inappropriate to make such partisan presentations to them.
Nonetheless, suspicions that the White House's partisan political priorities may have made their way into Justice Department decision-making have grown in recent weeks.
Not only have two of eight recently fired U.S. attorneys complained that in specific cases they felt pressure to make decisions that would advance Republican political interests, but last week several former career officials in the Justice Department said they had felt similar pressures on voting rights cases.
"The political decision-making process that led to the dismissal of eight United States attorneys was standard practice in the Civil Rights Division years before these revelations," Joseph D. Rich, recently retired head of the division's voting rights section, said in a sparsely attended House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing last week.
"This connection should not be minimized," he said.
All administrations set law enforcement priorities in the Justice Department. The Clinton administration emphasized white-collar crime and drugs, and Bush has pushed for action on terrorism, border control and voter fraud. Pressuring political appointees and career workers to follow those priorities is considered appropriate.
But injecting partisan considerations into individual cases is another matter.
Some Civil Rights Division veterans — mostly Democrats — have been expressing concern for months. But last week more officials spoke out about what they described as a pattern of partisan decision-making on individual cases.
They said their superiors, who were political appointees, repeatedly bottled up cases that might harm the electoral position of Republicans while encouraging the staff to pursue matters that might damage Democrats' prospects.
Department spokesman Erik Ablin said the allegations were recycled and wrong.
"These are not new allegations. If you look at the actual records of these cases in the courts, it can't be squared with what they are saying."
Nonetheless, the critics tied their allegations to those described by two of the fired U.S. attorneys. David C. Iglesias of Albuquerque, N.M., and John McKay of Seattle have said they felt pressure from Republican officials to prosecute alleged voter fraud in their states.
Both said their offices reviewed the cases and concluded the evidence did not warrant prosecution.
The White House and Justice Department officials have said some of the fired prosecutors did not adequately pursue voter fraud and other administration priorities.
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The complaining former Civil Rights Division employees may be well-intentioned, but their allegations are without merit, the officials said, pointing to stepped-up protection of voters speaking foreign languages. They also cited court decisions that they said generally supported the Justice Department in this area.
Rich, a 37-year department veteran, said a partisan litmus test in hiring and decision-making has undermined a tradition of nonpartisan professionalism in the division.
"Unfortunately, since this administration took office, that professionalism and nonpartisan commitment to the historic mission of the division has been replaced by unprecedented political decision-making," he told the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights and civil liberties on Thursday.
Rich's views were backed by other department veterans who had left the department in recent years. Many, like Rich, have joined civil rights organizations, such as the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, where Rich now works.
"The U.S. attorneys' firing confirmed my view that at the highest levels of DOJ it was decided that politics would play a role in how decisions were made," said Mark Posner, a former civil rights division attorney who contributed to a book-length report released by a civil rights group in Washington last week called "The Erosion of Rights: Declining Civil Rights Enforcement Under the Bush Administration."
The Civil Rights Division veterans focused their criticism on major voting case decisions over the last six years that they say have generally benefited the GOP.
The most recent case concerned a 2005 Georgia law that required voters to provide photo identification. Staff attorneys raised concerns about the law after the Georgia secretary of state supplied data showing that tens of thousands of voters might not have driver's licenses or other prescribed forms of identification. They said the plan could effectively disenfranchise large numbers of black voters.
The staff objections were ignored, department veterans said, and the Georgia ID rule was approved by the Justice Department 24 hours after the staff report was filed.
Rich and other former department staff have also charged that redistricting cases reviewed by the division have consistently benefited the GOP. These cases were particularly sensitive because redistricting has been a high priority for Rove and earlier GOP strategists. Republican success in redrawing congressional districts has helped increase the number of so-called safe seats for GOP candidates in recent years, especially in the South.
Delays by political appointees effectively allowed "the Republican Party in Mississippi to obtain implementation of a congressional redistricting plan that had been drawn at the party's behest," Rich said in congressional testimony.
The Supreme Court later upheld the process by which the plan was drawn up without addressing the plan's merits or whether the Justice Department delays were inappropriate.
Rich said unanimous staff objections to the Texas redistricting plan engineered by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay were ignored, and the plan was approved with encouragement from Republican officials in the department.
The Supreme Court later ruled 5-4 that most of the map was proper.
Though legal actions have generally declined in the division since Bush was elected, Rich and others said that shortly before the 2004 election, the division filed a series of "friend of the court briefs" in three cases challenging ballot provisions of the federal voting statute.
"In each case, the brief supported the position of the Republican party," Rich said.
Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times