by Publius Revolts
ePluribus Media has learned that the leadership of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division has reversed its July decision and is now signaling its willingness to permit Voting Rights Section Chief John Tanner to testify before Rep. John Conyers (D-MI)’s House Judiciary Committee. Although a Judiciary Committee spokesperson has confirmed the reversal, the final date and time for the testimony have not been finalized. There’s speculation that Tanner in his testimony will assume responsibility for the Georgia Voter ID controversy, leaving Hans von Spakovsky, currently up for confirmation to the Federal Elections Commission, a cleaner resume.
Tanner gained notoriety as the Section Chief who overruled career Justice Department staffers and permitted the State of to implement a law that requires all voters to show photo identification despite the fact that the career lawyers believed the new law discriminated against minorities in violation of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Tanner returned to the national spotlight when he made controversial remarks defending his decision. Last Friday, he stated, in remarks videotaped by Alan Breslauer of BradBlog, that "minorities don't become elderly the way white people do. They die first." Earlier in the week, at a Georgia NAACP conference, Tanner remarked that:
You think you get asked for ID more than I do? I've never heard anyone talk about driving while white. When someone goes to a check cashing business God help them if they don't have a photo ID. People who are poor are poor. They're not stupid. They're not helpless.
Tanner’s recent comments suggest that are disadvantaged by photo ID requirements, an argument that Tanner’s predecessor, Joseph D. Rich, who was forced to retire by the Civil Rights Division front office in which Bradley Schlozman1 and Hans von Spakovsky held sway, called "frankly ludicrous." Supporting this assessment of shoddy logic, former Voting Section political geographer Toby Moore told TPM Muckraker’s Paul Kiel that:
This is the kind of analysis that the voting section has been doing: seat of the pants generalizations and suppositions instead of hard numbers and analysis. . . It's false." Tanner's conclusions, he added, were "always in support of what his Republican appointee bosses wanted him to say, which is why he got to where he is.
Alabama native Tanner came on the scene shortly after Rich’s forced retirement in the aftermath of his resistance to the approval of Rep. Tom DeLay’s mid-decade gerrymander of Texas congressional districts, which career staff also attempted to block. Tanner quickly moved to transform the Voting Rights Section into what has been described by 30-year veteran African-American civil rights analyst Teresa Lynn as a "plantation. Under Tanner, there has been an unprecedented exodus of professional staff from the Voting Rights Section, including nine of thirteen African-American professional staff members and between one-half and two-thirds of its attorneys. Three out of four Deputy Chiefs left. Bob Kengle, a 20-year veteran of the Civil Rights Division, stated that he left due to "institutional sabotage," while Robert Berman, a 28-year veteran of the Voting Section, was transferred to what Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) called a ‘dead-end’ training job. Gilda Daniels, who was the Section’s only African-American deputy chief, became a law professor at the University of Baltimore. On Tanner’s watch, two African-American employees filed Equal Opportunity Employment complaints against Tanner and his hand-picked replacement for Berman, Yvette Rivera. A source with ties to the Voting Section told ePluribus Media that Rivera had no supervisory experience in civil rights enforcement at the time she was appointed Acting Deputy Chief. Voting Section staffers also say that Tanner took little action on a complaint of sexual harassment made by a female staffer against three new hires in the Voting Rights Section. During the incident, it is reported that one of the newly-hired lawyers—incredibly, in a section of the Civil Rights Division created to secure the voting rights of African-Americans—accused the staffer of being "too pro-black" and asked why she had not been made to leave like so many other staffers who were dedicated supporters of civil rights and many of whom were themselves black.
Tanner’s apparent concern for "white voting rights" is not new. He presided over the first such suit ever brought by the Justice Department in Noxubee County, Mississippi. He also brought about a shift in the direction of the Voting Rights Section’s enforcement efforts that included a failed voter fraud lawsuit against Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan in an attempt to force the state to more aggressively purge voters from its rolls. That effort has continued in recent months, when Tanner sent letters, which, as journalist Steven Rosenfeld states, are an effort to pressure:
10 states to purge voter rolls before the 2008 election based on statistics that former Voting Section attorneys and other experts say are flawed and do not confirm that those states have more voter registrations than eligible voters, as the department alleges[.]
Curiously, Tanner appears eager to take responsibility for what many consider to be the Bush Civil Rights Division’s worst transgression, the preclearance, (the equivalent of pre-check that a law complies with the Voting Rights Act) of the Georgia photo identification law. At last Friday’s meeting Tanner also claimed the analysis that resulted in the Georgia preclearance as his own: "my analysis that was not affected by any other person" (see first video at 2:40). This statement goes against the widespread belief in the voting rights community that the Georgia approval was the work of Hans von Spakovsky. It was von Spakovsky, after all, who, as "Publius," wrote a law review article defending photo identification requirements at the same time that the Georgia law was under review by the Justice Department. von Spakovsky has deep Georgia roots, having served as chair of the Republican Party in Fulton County, which includes Atlanta.
Is Tanner willing to take the fall for von Spakovsky, whose nomination to the Federal Election Commission was unprecedentedly reported out of the Senate Rules Committee without recommendation and then blocked by Senators Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Barack Obama (D-IL)?2 Sources close to the Voting Section tell ePluribus Media that Tanner has told some colleagues that he plans to retire by next September, conveniently before the 2008 elections. Is Tanner serving the interests of the Bush administration because he desires a better retirement package? Unlike line attorneys and even deputy chiefs, the Voting Section Chief is a member of the Senior Executive Service, an appointment that carries a higher salary. Federal retiree benefits for an employee such as Tanner, who entered federal service in 1976, are based on a retiree's highest three years of pay (PDF – see p. 7). Or are Monica Goodling’s infamous "loyal Bushies" holding something more sinister over Tanner’s head? According to Joe Rich, following the Georgia ID incident, the Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility opened an investigation into the handling of the matter. The Office has the power to refer matters for criminal prosecution if it feels it is warranted. The investigation into the Georgia ID approval was mysteriously left hanging.
At this point, we can only speculate on Tanner’s motives. There is, however, an emerging consensus among the Section’s staff as to why the Civil Rights Division leadership would reverse itself and permit the Voting Section chief to testify. Sources described the consensus to ePluribus Media as "throwing [Tanner] under the bus." Tanner became Section Chief in 2005. It remains to be seen whether, after his testimony, he will be able to hold out until he can retire with a Senior Executive Service retirement package, or whether he will join von Spakovsky, Schlozman, former Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Wan Kim, and Alberto Gonzales in the ranks of disgraced former Justice Department employees.
1 Schlozman, who served briefly as Acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights and then was appointed Acting United States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri by then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales after his predecessor, Todd Graves, was fired as part of the U.S. Attorney purges, has recently taken to practicing tax law at a small firm in Wichita.
2 Sources in the voting rights community have also reported that Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) were influential in blocking the Von Spakovsky nomination.
About the Author: Publius Revolts is a staff writer for ePluribus Media.
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