WASHINGTON – Thomas Perez, President Obama’s pick for secretary of Labor, faced sharp criticism from Republican senators during his confirmation hearing because of his role in a housing-discrimination case and management style during his time at the Department of Justice.
Perez, who previously won the nomination to his current position as assistant attorney general for the civil rights division at the DoJ after Republicans dragged out the process for six months, faced the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on Thursday.
Perez told the committee his top priority would be “jobs, jobs, and jobs” and that he believes the Department of Labor could play a critical role in getting Americans back to work.
During the hearing, GOP senators questioned Perez on various issues, including voter identification laws and the St. Paul housing discrimination case. Many Republican senators tried to portray the record of Perez at the Department of Justice as politically biased.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) complained that the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under Perez had unfairly targeted South Carolina over the voter identification law the state sought to implement last year. Scott said the Department of Justice had been unfair and politically motivated.
“As I look at your management style, it seems to have a political perspective, a political bias…it seems not to be open, not to be balanced, and certainly not to be fair,” said Scott. “Is there in fact the ability to have an open and fair approach in the Department of Labor when, in fact, it seems like it’s been a politically charged environment in the Department of Justice?”
Perez replied by defending his management practices, saying that he has always had a style that is “inclusive, open, and balanced.” He also noted that a judge appointed by President George W. Bush called “understandable” the Department of Justice’s concerns about the voter identification law in South Carolina.
Republican lawmakers sharply criticized Perez in a report released Sunday over what they said was a questionable deal he brokered while serving as the chief of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.
In the 63-page report, which took months of investigation, the GOP lawmakers accuse Perez of misusing his power last year to persuade the city of St. Paul, Minn., to withdraw a housing discrimination case before it could be heard by the Supreme Court. In exchange, the Department of Justice agreed not to intervene in two whistleblower cases against St. Paul that could have won up to $200 million for taxpayers.
“This offer was inappropriate and potentially violated Perez’s duty of loyalty to his client, the United States,” said the report from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), California Rep. Darrell Issa (R), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Perez pledged to the senators that he would have an open mind in the role and work with business and labor to create jobs.
“The [Department of Labor] must continue to perform its critical tasks of ensuring a safe and equal opportunity workplace. Job safety and job growth are not mutually exclusive, and it is not necessary to choose between jobs and job safety,” said Perez.
“I share President Obama’s vision of a growing economy powered by a rising middle class, with ladders of opportunity available to everyone,” he continued.
Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the committee’s top Republican, questioned Perez on his decision to get involved in the St. Paul deal.
“You see St. Paul heading toward the Supreme Court with a case that you think will present the wrong result. You get involved. And the end result is the DOJ declines to become involved in a whistleblower case. The case doesn’t collect the money…it seems that you’re manipulating the law to get the result you want,” Alexander said.
Perez replied that he followed the advice and counsel of career attorneys in the Justice Department to handle the case. He also reminded the Republican senators that he has worked under Republican administrations — first under Ronald Reagan and then George H.W. Bush.
“We received ethics and civil responsibility guidance,” and the decision was “entirely appropriate” and “in the interest of justice,” he said.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) also accused Perez of having used his personal e-mail account to disclose “non-public information” about settlements of major Justice Department cases to a New York Times reporter.
“Is it appropriate or ethical to release non-public information especially when that information could move equity markets?” Burr asked.
Other Republican senators focused on less peripheral issues and asked him questions concerning his potential role as secretary of Labor. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) asked questions about the job corps program — a federal program offering vocational training for economically disadvantaged youth — and regulations issued by the Department of Labor that may harm small-business owners.
Democrats were more positive in their evaluation of Perez’s record, presenting him as a champion of civil rights. Many of their questions seemed perfunctory and put forward only to highlight Perez’s qualifications for the job.
“His professional experience gives me confidence that he has the leadership skills, management experience, and policy expertise to be an effective secretary of Labor,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
“And, he has what is perhaps the best credential to lead a labor agency – namely the fact that he has done it before,” he continued.
The Democrats praised Perez for his work during his tenure as secretary of the Maryland Department of Labor. In particular, they focused on his efforts to establish public-private partnerships to help job growth in that state.
Some Republicans remain skeptical of Perez’s record. Republican Committee Study Chairman Steve Scalise (La.) and 42 House Republicans sent a letter to the Senate shortly after the hearing in opposition to Perez’s nomination.
“Thomas Perez has a long and alarming track record of ignoring the law when it suits his radical agenda, and he is entirely unfit to assume the power and responsibility that comes with a cabinet level post as the Secretary of the Department of Labor,” Scalise said.
The Senate Committee will meet Thursday in a closed session for further discussion of the Perez nomination. His confirmation is expected to move to the full Senate for a confirmation vote.