By: Jerry Markon
When Thomas E. Perez took over the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division in October, he found an office that was a shadow of its historic self.
Nearly 70 percent of the lawyers had left between 2003 and 2007, a mass exodus that came during allegations the Bush administration was politicizing hiring.
Internal watchdogs concluded that the division's former head had refused to hire lawyers he labeled "commies" and had transferred one for allegedly writing in "ebonics," allegations the official denied. Civil rights groups said the unit had lost its traditional civil rights focus.
"We had to do some healing," said Perez, 48, a former Maryland official and deputy assistant attorney general under Republican and Democratic presidents. "We had to restore the partnership between the career staff and the political leadership. And frankly, certain civil rights laws were not being enforced."
That is changing: Justice Department officials say the division -- created in 1957 to help the Freedom Riders and students seeking to integrate public schools -- has stepped up enforcement of employment, disability rights and other anti-discrimination laws. Hate crimes and police misconduct are a renewed focus, and several section chiefs from the George W. Bush era have left. More than 30 people have been or are about to be hired as part of an 18 percent budget increase this year, the largest in the division's history. It will bring in 102 new people.
And in recent weeks, the division has taken a leading role in preparing for a possible Obama administration lawsuit against Arizona over the state's new immigration law.
"I think we have positioned the division to carry out its traditional mission of enforcement and be nimble enough to respond to emerging challenges," Perez said, citing cases such as a $6.1 million settlement with AIG subsidiaries to resolve allegations of discrimination against African American borrowers and the creation of a fair-lending unit in response to the economic crisis. The unit has 49 active investigations.
Justice officials could not provide overall comparisons with the first 17 months of the Bush administration, but in employment discrimination, for example, the Justice Department under President Obama filed 29 cases through March 20. One case was filed during the same period in the Bush administration.
The heightened focus on civil rights is a priority that flows directly from the top. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is a former civil rights lawyer who has vowed to make the division the department's "crown jewel," and Obama said in his January State of the Union address: "My administration has a Civil Rights Division that is once again prosecuting civil rights violations and employment discrimination."
Civil rights groups and some former Justice lawyers give the division generally high marks, though some Bush administration veterans and conservatives are critical.
"The division had been decimated, and as someone who spent more than 20 years there, I was very saddened to see the state of affairs," said Gerry Hebert, a former senior official in the division's voting section. He said Perez has made "a great start."
Robert N. Driscoll, a senior civil rights official in the Bush administration, credited Perez with securing large budget increases but said the division is "trying to intimidate political opponents." He cited the threats to sue over the Arizona law and a civil rights investigation of a controversial Arizona sheriff over tough immigration enforcement.
"Opening a case and saber-rattling is not accomplishing anything," said Driscoll, who is representing the sheriff, Joseph M. Arpaio. The department has acknowledged a civil investigation of Arpaio's office, and sources familiar with the case who spoke on condition of anonymity said a federal grand jury in Phoenix has been empaneled as part of a criminal probe.
Perez insisted it is actually the opposite, that the division has returned to its apolitical roots. As part of a theme he calls "restoration and transformation," he said hiring is once more primarily in the hands of career lawyers rather than political appointees. About 5,000 people have applied for jobs, and about a dozen who left in the Bush years have been rehired.
Among recent cases, the division obtained the largest-ever settlement of rental-discrimination claims under the Fair Housing Act: $2.7 million from the owners of Los Angeles apartment buildings for discriminating against African Americans and Hispanics. Prosecutors are also zeroing in on emerging areas of enforcement, such as growing threats to civil rights groups on the Internet.
A particular focus is restoring relations with such groups, which Perez calls "our eyes and ears." He added, "We can't be everywhere."
John Payton, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said the relationship is much improved. "When we call them, they listen," he said. "I think they're on track and on mission. It's just too early to tell what will happen."