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Justice official said to have preferred GOP loyalists

June 04, 2007|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Two years ago, in a speech at the Justice Department marking the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Bradley J. Schlozman, then the acting chief of the department's civil rights division, found much to celebrate.

"The voting enforcement efforts of the civil rights division during this administration have been as strong, if not stronger, than ever," Schlozman declared. "We have a tremendous record, one that is a testament to the division's outstanding attorneys and staff."

Schlozman, a Bush administration political appointee, was also in the process of dismantling the ranks of career attorneys in the division, former employees contend.

Some of the division's most experienced lawyers resigned or were involuntarily transferred, often in favor of Republican loyalists who had a much different view of the laws they were sworn to uphold, the former employees allege.

"He viewed me as the enemy. He viewed most career attorneys as the enemy," said Joseph D. Rich, a former chief of the department's voting-rights section. Rich estimates that more than half of the 38 attorneys in the section eventually left.

Two months before Schlozman's speech, Rich resigned from the department, citing run-ins with Schlozman and other Bush appointees. Rich had served for 36 years.

On Tuesday, Schlozman is scheduled to testify on Capitol Hill in connection with the congressional investigation into the firings of U.S. attorneys last year.

Democrats are investigating whether the prosecutors were fired for improper reasons. One line of inquiry is whether the administration targeted those who were not aggressively pursuing voting-rights cases that could have benefited Republicans in so-called battleground states.

Schlozman was an architect of administration voting-rights policy at the Justice Department as well as an interim U.S. attorney in Kansas City, Mo., where he filed a number of controversial voting-rights suits.

Schlozman, who now works in the Justice Department office that oversees U.S. attorneys, was not available for comment.

His testimony comes as investigators at Justice have expanded an internal investigation into the U.S. attorney scandal to include allegations of discriminatory hiring, including at the civil rights division.

Last month, Monica M. Goodling, a former top aide to Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, admitted in sworn testimony before Congress that she may have violated federal civil-service laws by considering the partisan political activities of applicants for career Justice Department positions.

The Justice Department disputed that it had engaged in discriminatory hiring in the civil rights division, and adamantly defended its recent civil rights enforcement record.

"The civil rights division seeks to hire outstanding attorneys with demonstrated legal skills and abilities regardless of their political or ideological backgrounds," spokeswoman Cynthia Magnuson said in a statement. "As the civil rights division does not employ a political litmus test in making hiring decisions, the attorneys that the division has hired come from an extremely wide variety of backgrounds."

Magnuson said the administration had brought lawsuits to protect the voting rights of citizens of Filipino, Haitian, Korean and Vietnamese heritage. The division has also been especially active in bringing cases challenging voting procedures that are not translated into the languages of minority voters, she said.

Schlozman, a former antitrust lawyer at a Washington law firm, joined the Justice Department in 2001 as a counsel to the deputy attorney general. He became a deputy assistant attorney general in the civil rights division in May 2003, supervising voting-rights cases, among others, and for five months was the acting head of the division.

Critics say his tenure is emblematic of how the administration turned civil rights enforcement on its head.

The controversy reflects fundamentally different visions of the role of the federal government when it comes to voting. The Bush administration has focused on weeding out perceived fraud. Critics say that little fraud exists and that the crackdown has had the effect of discouraging voter participation.

One of Schlozman's priorities was filing a suit against a black political boss in Mississippi who was allegedly violating the rights of white voters. The complaint was the first time the Justice Department ever claimed that whites suffered discrimination in voting because of race. The case is pending.

The department also began aggressively enforcing a law requiring states to maintain accurate voter registration lists. On Schlozman's watch, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit in November 2005 against the state of Missouri, where in some counties the number of registered voters exceeded the voting-age population. The government said the lists were rife with potential for fraud.

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