ALM Properties, Inc.
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President Barack Obama nominated Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, who has led the U.S. Department of Justice's civil rights division since 2009, to serve as the next secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor. At a White House event in March, when he made the announcement, Obama lauded Perez's work at Justice and urged the Senate to confirm him as quickly as possible.
"In his current role," Obama said, "Tom has fought to open pathways into the workforce for everyone willing to contribute, including people with disabilities, LGBT Americans, and immigrants." While praising Perez's willingness to tackle "tough issues," the president emphasized his success "as a consensus-builder."
In his own brief remarks, Perez built on that theme. "As you well know, our nation still faces critical economic challenges, and the department's mission is as important as ever," Perez said. "I am confident that together with our partners in organized labor, the business community, grassroots communities, Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike, we can keep making progress for all working families."
Under Perez's watch, the civil rights division took aim at lending institutions and settled its three largest fair lending cases ever. They included the $355 million paid by Bank of America Corporation to resolve allegations that Countrywide Financial, one of the bank's units, systematically discriminated against qualified black and Hispanic borrowers.
By several metrics, the civil rights division has been resurgent since Perez took over. From January 2009 to May 2011, more than a dozen attorneys who left the division during the administration of George W. Bush returned. This showed that the department was refilling its ranks with lawyers, many of whom had experience working for civil rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Yet, according to a report released in March by the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General, Perez faced big personnel-related obstacles when he took over. The report detailed "polarization and mistrust" within the voting section of the civil rights division. While it did not find that attorneys in the section made enforcement decisions based on race or partisan leanings, it did conclude that the bickering harmed the functioning of the section.
Perez said in a written response to the report: "Without question, the voting section in January 2009 had low morale and an unacceptable degree of staff conflict, which we believe were largely a product of the illegal hiring, transfers, case assignments, and other personnel practices that occurred in the division from 2003 to 2006." He added that since 2009, "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 civil rights laws in an independent, evenhanded fashion."
Perez was no stranger to the civil rights division when he was confirmed in October 2009, having served as a prosecutor there from 1989 to 1994. He then served as special counsel to Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) from 1995 to 1998. More recently, Perez was secretary of Maryland's Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
Republicans delayed Perez's confirmation to his current post in part because of his involvement with a case that included charges of voter intimidation in Philadelphia. But he was ultimately confirmed 72 to 22.
It is not clear whether Perez will encounter increased opposition in the Senate to his new nomination. Some Republicans wasted little time expressing their concerns.
A version of this story appeared in The National Law Journal, a sibling of Corporate Counsel.