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Justice Department section called deeply polarized

Employee blogs and emails were filled with venom and frustration, comparing conservative workers to 'Nazis' and saying the agency's policies are biased against blacks, a report says.

March 12, 2013|By Richard A. Serrano, Washington Bureau
  • Assistant Atty. Gen. Thomas Perez heads the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department.
Assistant Atty. Gen. Thomas Perez heads the Civil Rights Division of the… (Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images )

WASHINGTON — Justice Department employees in the Civil Rights Division's voting section have shown a "disappointing lack of professionalism" during the Bush and Obama administrations, according to an independent review that found a polarizing culture, with many staffers venting frustration in personal emails and blog posts filled with racial and other epithets.

The department's inspector general's office is sending its findings, released Tuesday, to top Justice Department officials for possible discipline or other administrative action against three unidentified employees. Many others who were involved in similar conduct have left the department, the inspector general reported.

The report said the hard feelings and poor conduct among political and career employees were so widespread that they lasted "over an extended period of time, during two administrations and across various facets of the voting section's operations."

Incidents cited in the report occurred during the George W. Bush administration, and included:

• Blog comments that compared conservative employees to "Nazis," and another that referred to a fellow worker as having "yellow fever" because the employee looked "Asian."

• Employees complained in a posting that the section's policies were bigoted against blacks, and used an inflammatory racial epithet.

• A conservative employee was denigrated as someone from a neighborhood where "everyone wears a white sheet, the darkies say 'yes'm,' and equal rights for all are the real 'land of make believe.'"

• An African American employee told the inspector general that he was assigned only for racial reasons to help handle a voter intimidation complaint in Mississippi in which blacks purportedly harassed whites. He said conservative career employees told him, "They only wanted you down there because you are a black face."

The investigation was started after Republicans complained that the Obama administration was intentionally not prosecuting some voter intimidation cases. In particular, the GOP cited an incident involving the New Black Panther Party, whose members wore berets and black jackets outside a Philadelphia polling place during the 2008 election.

During the last days of the Bush administration, prosecutors filed civil action against two Panther members, its national chairman and the group. President Obama's Justice Department asked the court to drop the case against three of the four defendants.

Republicans cried foul, saying that the Panthers had scared away white voters. The inspector general determined otherwise, and said the decision to drop the case against the three defendants was "based on a good-faith assessment of the law and facts of the case."

The Civil Rights Division is run by Assistant Atty. Gen. Thomas E. Perez, the leading candidate to be Obama's new secretary of Labor.

A month ago, Perez was shown the inspector general's report. Much of the distrust and recriminations began during the Bush administration, before Perez took over the Civil Rights Division in 2009, but some continued during his watch.

In his formal response to the findings, Perez acknowledged that although "significant progress has been made" in the voting section, "additional work remains."

He added that when he took over, the voting section was already troubled by low morale. Since then, he said, "the Civil Rights Division and the voting section have undertaken a number of steps to improve the professionalism of our workplace and to ensure that we enforce the civil rights laws in an independent, evenhanded fashion."

Rick Hasen, a law and political science professor at UC Irvine, said he wasn't surprised.

"We've known for quite some time there has been fighting and dysfunction in the voting section," he said. But the new report "adds details to how this kind of political polarization has continued through both Republican and Democratic administrations. In the era of the voting wars, it is somewhat inevitable that partisan warfare over voting rules has spilled over" into the Justice Department.

richard.serrano@latimes.com

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