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Enough Is Enough, Joe Rich: An Uncivil Man from the Civil Rights Division

The former chief of the Voting Section of the DOJ's Civil Rights Division is not the apolitical civil servant portrayed in the media. He is hyper-partisan and vindictive, and should be investigated for perjury.

by
Hans A. von Spakovsky

Bio

September 20, 2010 - 12:00 am

Over the last five years, the Bush administration’s Civil Rights Division has been subjected to blistering criticism, motivated almost exclusively by partisan and radical politics. The great bulk of these attacks have been penned by former lawyers from the Division, long considered to be the home of many of the most radical left-wing ideologues in the entire executive branch.

The criticism mostly consists of the same tired, recycled rhetoric that the left trots out every time Republicans occupy the Justice Department, and it’s no more convincing now than it ever was. In countless columns, I have shown why these attacks, including the inspector general’s biased, inaccurate, and partisan report on hiring, are meritless. Yet the hypocrisy of those primarily responsible for waging the assaults is not widely known.

It should surprise no one that the baseless attacks are largely driven by the left’s desperate effort to justify the array of radical policy shifts and transgressions of the Holder Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division over the past two years. What is problematic, though, is that the lawyers authoring this criticism have been consistently portrayed by the media as apolitical, virtuous, career civil servants.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

One of the loudest critics has been the former chief of the Division’s Voting Section, Joseph Rich. Rich has falsely claimed that there has never been anything “close to the type of politicization” that occurred in the Bush administration. Ever since he took advantage of a $25,000 buyout for Justice employees and retired in 2005, Rich has been writing editorials for left-wing publications, making the rounds at liberal policy forums, and peddling to any reporter within earshot his contrived, conspiracy-laden theories about the supposed politicization of the Voting Section during the prior administration. Rich launches these broadsides from his current job as a senior director at the highly radical Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

The reason I have reluctantly been forced to finally highlight some of the lowlights of Rich’s tenure in the Civil Rights Division is that he has injected himself into a variety of significant election issues affecting this nation, including now the dismissal of the New Black Panther Party voter intimidation case.

He has filed an affidavit with the U.S. Civil Rights Commission disputing some of the allegations made in the Commission’s investigation, including my own sworn affidavit, making his veracity and credibility a public issue. He has unfairly painted the attorneys on that case as partisans, while at the same time he hides in the shadows as a partisan of the worst kind — a dishonest partisan. Rich is entitled to write and give whatever opinions he wants. But his treatment in the media as nothing more than a long-time, apolitical civil servant who eschewed politics during his tenure in the Division should stop.

Rich allowed rank politics to pervade the Division to a degree almost unimaginable. It is time for the media to learn some inconvenient truths about the real Joe Rich, which also reflect the professionalism (or lack thereof) and partisanship of so many of the other lawyers in the Division.

The AIDS Smear

One of the most telling incidents about Rich was his actions toward my former colleague and friend, Joe Beard. Beard and I were both hired to work on election reform issues in the Voting Section, although Beard began slightly before me in 2001. Prior to his arrival, Beard had been active in Republican politics (just as many other Voting Section attorneys were active in Democratic politics in their pre-DOJ days) and had worked as a special counsel to the assistant attorney general for civil rights during the Reagan and Bush I administrations.

Rich knew all about this history and seemed bound and determined to make Beard’s life miserable. Rich, however, wasn’t content with petty snipes, and he eventually crossed the line from harmless political gossip to vindictive animosity and personal character assassination.

It occurred in a conversation Rich was having with Chris Coates, then a trial attorney in the Voting Section. (Many readers will recognize Coates as the Voting Section chief whose authority was stripped from him by the new Obama political leadership in the Civil Rights Division, and who was subsequently “transferred” to South Carolina in early 2010.) Rich commented how much he resented having Beard in the Section because of his work in the Reagan years under former Assistant Attorney General Brad Reynolds. Coates listened attentively, but said nothing.

Then, out of the blue, Rich pointed out that Beard suffered from AIDS, a fact largely unknown outside a small group of Beard’s closest friends, and personal information available to Rich only because of his supervisory position in the Voting Section.

Coates was simultaneously stunned and revolted that Rich would reveal such confidential information. Coates had absolutely no reason to know this information and couldn’t believe that Rich would stoop to such a level in the name of rank politics. Character assassination clearly mattered little to Rich, but it was a very big deal to a gentleman like Coates, who recounted what happened to me. There is a basic level of human decency that one would hope individuals of all political stripes would respect. Joe Rich didn’t show it.

This incident demonstrated that Rich could not be trusted and was beyond redemption. Sadly, Joe Beard died soon after I learned of Rich’s distasteful comments. We can only hope that Beard was not fully aware of the terrible things being said about him by his boss.

Mercifully, I was transferred out of Voting to the front office of the Division approximately one year after I first started at Justice to work as a career counsel to the assistant attorney general.

The Attempted Sabotage of the Noxubee County Lawsuit

It didn’t take long before Rich engaged in more underhanded and unprofessional behavior. This incident has become nationally known, and it involved outright dishonesty.

The Division’s Voting Section conducted an investigation of election improprieties by the now infamous Ike Brown, a two-time felon and current chairman of the Democratic Executive Committee in Noxubee County, Mississippi. Brown had been engaging in discrimination against white voters as part of his drive to ensure complete African American domination of politics in the county. It was some of the most flagrant discrimination that the Voting Section had seen in decades, and the trial attorney assigned to the investigation — Christopher Coates — recognized that Brown had to be stopped.

After multiple visits to Mississippi, Coates prepared a lengthy memorandum to Rich in which he recommended that the Division bring suit against Brown and the local Democratic Executive Committee in Noxubee County for violations of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The case was open and shut based on the evidence uncovered in the investigation.

But incredibly, when Rich forwarded the memorandum to me a few days later, the recommendation to bring suit had been deleted.

In the affidavit Rich recently submitted to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, he denied that he deleted Coates’ recommendation. Either Rich has had a serious loss of memory or he has committed perjury.

Whatever the case, there are no less than four individuals who can testify conclusively as to the falsity of this statement, including Coates himself, and the Commission ought to refer the matter to the Justice Department’s Criminal Division for a criminal perjury investigation.

I became aware of the deletion only because I spoke to Coates directly about the case. He told me about the egregious lawlessness he had uncovered in Noxubee County and reiterated his desire to file a Voting Rights Act lawsuit in response. I was stunned because Rich’s memorandum on the case did not include Coates’ lawsuit recommendation.

Upon learning of the outrageous misconduct by Rich in omitting the lawsuit recommendation, I alerted my superiors in both the Civil Rights Division and the Associate Attorney General’s Office, all of whom reacted with similar astonishment at Rich’s unprofessional conduct. Everyone recognized what a political animal Rich was, but almost no one — up to that point anyway — thought that Rich would go so far as to sanction outright racial disenfranchisement as part of his ideological agenda and at the risk of engaging in such dishonest conduct. It was a mistake we would not make again, and what very little trust existed between Rich and his supervisors completely disappeared.

Rich was ordered to send up a memorandum that included Coates’s entire recommendation. Caught red-handed and unable to justify his earlier machinations, Rich put the recommendation back in. He now claims that he approved the recommendation to file suit in Noxubee County — but that is only because he was orally reprimanded for deleting the recommendation in the first place and subsequently excoriated over his duplicity in his annual job evaluation, a fact that Rich now inexplicably denies in the affidavit he filed with the Commission. Rich even appealed the adverse evaluation that included the Noxubee matter, but the findings in the evaluation were upheld. Although Rich did nothing to discourage the hostility that many of the Voting Section attorneys directed towards Coates because of his decision to bring a lawsuit against an African American defendant, Rich at least no longer sought to sabotage the case.

The rest, as they say, is history. Coates and his trial team litigated an incredibly successful case. After a three-week bench trial, the district court concluded that Brown had engaged in “improper, and in some instances fraudulent conduct … for the purpose of diluting white voting strength.” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in affirming the judgment against the defendants, held that there had been clear intentional discrimination in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. (For more detail on the case, see my March 2009 National Review article here).

Colleen Kane-Dabu

Rich’s misconduct in a personnel matter involving Colleen Kane-Dabu, an attorney who worked in the Voting Section during the Clinton administration, is also worth noting. In the late 1990s, Ms. Kane-Dabu left Washington, moved to California, and then settled in New York a year or so later. None of this would have been of any interest except for one small detail.

Ms. Kane-Dabu never left the DOJ payroll.

Early in the Bush administration, then-Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Mike Wiggins caught wind of the situation and ordered Joe Rich — in no uncertain terms — to immediately offer Ms. Kane-Dabu a choice: return to Washington to work in the Voting Section’s offices, or sever her employment with the Division. Not only did the Civil Rights Division not maintain satellite offices outside Washington, but this bizarre arrangement — with absolutely no personal supervision — did not comply with the detailed requirements of both Justice Department and executive branch federal personnel rules on teleworking. Perhaps even more importantly, the Division’s new leadership had been deliberately kept in the dark about the matter. Rich told Wiggins he would carry out this mandate, and everyone assumed the issue had been resolved.

However, approximately one year later, Ms. Kane-Dabu’s name appeared as one of the individuals who had assisted in the Voting Section’s review of a major pre-clearance submission. It was a stunning revelation that Rich had so brazenly defied a direct order from his boss.

When confronted, Rich conceded that he had not delivered any sort of ultimatum to Ms. Kane-Dabu and insisted that he had been confused by Wiggins’s directive. This excuse was as laughable as it was duplicitous. Wiggins, whose trademark bluntness was well known to all, made clear that he had minced no words in his discussions with Rich and that Rich was simply lying. Rich’s supervisors, who by that time had grown increasingly exasperated with Rich, had had enough.

Convinced that it could not trust Rich to handle the matter, the leadership ordered the Division’s administrative staff to deliver the news to Ms. Kane-Dabu regarding her employment options. Meanwhile, Rich was written up for insubordination and a detailed misconduct memorandum was placed in his personnel file. It wasn’t long after that when Rich finally moved on, and his political tirades (at least inside Justice) mercifully came to an end.

Joe Rich’s Politicized Hiring

The Colleen Kane-Dabu incident was hardly the only example of Joe Rich’s improper conduct in personnel matters. In fact, one of the primary reasons that Rich was so heavily distrusted by his supervisors during my tenure was his history of politicized hiring and his open contempt for conservatives.

The most glaring example (at least of which I am personally aware) involved a distinguished applicant who applied for a trial attorney position in the Voting Section in 1999 after having worked at one of the most prominent law firms in Washington. Unfortunately for this individual, one of the senior partners at that law firm — whom the applicant barely knew at the time and for whom the applicant did no work at all — also happened to be a preeminent conservative litigator who had successfully battled the Civil Rights Division in the Supreme Court on a number of occasions.

Following two initial, positive rounds of interviews with Section attorneys, this applicant was told that Joe Rich wanted to meet with him. What followed was nothing short of shocking. As the applicant later conveyed to me:

Rich came into the interview loaded for bear. Out of the gate, in an incredibly nasty tone, he said, “I see you worked for [prominent conservative attorney]. It’s obvious, therefore, you’re a conservative, too. Why would I hire a right-winger to work in the Voting Section? This must be some sort of joke. You must be coming in as a mole to undermine me.”

Then, in a mocking and accusatory manner, Rich demanded to know if the applicant had worked for, or was currently a member of, any “traditional” civil rights organization. Stunned at the unprofessionalism he was encountering, but sensing an opportunity for common ground, the applicant pointed out that he had worked extensively in college for various civil rights organizations. He also noted that, as a minority himself, he considered civil rights to be extremely important. But Rich would have none of it. Not even attempting to hide his anger, Rich stated, according to my source:

I don’t believe that you’re committed to civil rights. You say you are but I don’t believe you. No attorney who works for a conservative like [preeminent Washington litigator] could be committed to civil rights. I think you’re nothing but a conservative. I will not let you in this Civil Rights Division. I will not have you.

Recognizing that Rich’s hardwired partisanship could not be overcome, the applicant thanked Rich for his time and left; he obviously did not get the job. No one should be treated this way. To this day, the applicant remarked to me, he bristles when he hears Joe Rich’s name. He did not want his name used in this article because he fears the vindictiveness of the left based on his experience with Rich.

J. Christian Adams, the lawyer who recently resigned over the New Black Panther Party case dismissal, had a similar experience in an interview with Rich:

He was incredibly nasty to me. … I had never been in a more unprofessional interview in my entire career. I had conducted many interviews and I had never treated anyone the way he treated me, with condescension and open contempt. He wasn’t fit for the position.

And I have personal experience with another incident just like this one.

Contrary to the false claims that the Bush political appointees only hired conservatives in the Division, they simply made sure that qualified conservatives were not systematically excluded from career slots by managers like Rich. Rich’s political hostility towards me and Adams might provide a motive for his attempts to distort the truth in the Noxubee case, although covering up his own wrongdoing in that case is another possible motive.

Other Joe Rich Exaggerations, Misdeeds, and Partisanship

Rich, by the way, never seems to grow tired of claiming that the Civil Rights Division experienced a high attrition rate during the Bush administration (approximately 70% over the course of Bush’s presidency) because of the supposed “politicization” of the Division’s political leadership. This refrain has also been echoed by Obama political appointees like Thomas Perez, the current assistant attorney general for civil rights. What Rich and Perez conveniently fail to mention, however, is that the average attrition rate during the Clinton administration was 12 to 14 percent per year. In other words, as personnel records provided to the House Judiciary Committee demonstrated emphatically, the turnover rate in the Civil Rights Division during the Bush administration was virtually identical to the rate during the Clinton administration.

So who’s really playing politics here?

Keep in mind, too, that before he was made the chief of the Voting Section, Rich worked as a deputy chief in the Division’s Housing Section. During the Clinton administration, the Housing Section — under Rich’s leadership — filed cases in which courts eventually compelled the government to pay $175,000 in attorneys’ fees for the filing of unwarranted and frivolous discrimination claims. When a race discrimination claim was filed against Rich by one of his employees and an adverse finding was made against him by an administrative law judge, the Division was forced to pay off the employee with a five-figure settlement.

Just six weeks before the hotly contested 2004 presidential election, Rich made a $455 contribution to the ultra left-wing political action committee America Coming Together (ACT). ACT was aggressively soliciting money and getting out the votes for Democratic political candidates, especially presidential nominee John Kerry. Rich apparently wanted to do everything in his power to ensure that his superiors in the next presidential administration would not tread on his political machine.

The fact that Rich — the chief of the supposedly nonpartisan Voting Section and the man largely responsible for overseeing allegations of improprieties in federal elections — would make a sizable political contribution to this hard core left-wing outfit just a month out from a major presidential election speaks volumes about not only his poor judgment, but also his radical political leanings. Obviously, Rich had every legal right to make that contribution and to support those with whom he shared a deep ideological affinity. Indeed, if such a prohibition existed, there would be no one left in the Civil Rights Division. But the media has consistently sought to portray Rich as an apolitical, long-time career civil servant. His donation to ACT shows what nonsense that characterization is.

Sadly, Rich was hardly alone. He was part of a cadre — that remains to this very day — of hyper-partisan liberal attorneys who occupy nearly every nook and cranny of the Division’s career ranks. But he has been one of the most outspoken of this group and he has, therefore, invited this scrutiny of his record.

Exposing radicals like Rich is important to understanding exactly who the lawyers are who work in the Division. It is a necessary part of restoring the professionalism of the Justice Department, and eventually transforming the Civil Rights Division from an arm of the ACLU, La Raza, and the DNC into an objective law enforcement agency that represents all of the American people, and an agency that will enforce the law in a racially neutral, nonpartisan, and nonpolitical manner.

Hans A. von Spakovsky is a Senior Legal Fellow at The Heritage Foundation and a former counsel to the assistant attorney general for civil rights at the Justice Department. He is the coauthor of the book “Who’s Counting? How Fraudsters and Bureaucrats Put Your Vote at Risk”.
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