St. Paul pastor at center of U.S. labor secretary confirmation battle

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 7, 2013 - 11:31 PM

GOP says nominee Perez quieted whistleblower Fredrick Newell.

– In the fractious congressional battle over labor secretary nominee Thomas Perez, St. Paul pastor Fredrick Newell is the star witness caught in the middle.

Newell, a longtime neighborhood jobs activist, became an unlikely witness Tuesday for Republicans in a duel with the Obama administration over civil rights law.

In a joint session to hear Newell’s story, House Republicans questioned whether Perez, the Justice Department’s civil rights chief, dropped Newell’s whistleblower suit against the city of St. Paul last year as part of a “secret deal” to keep an unrelated housing discrimination case from going to the U.S. Supreme Court.

That has put Newell, a businessman and pastor of True Spirit Ministries on St. Paul’s East Side, at the forefront of Republican efforts to upend the Perez nomination. He has also become a key figure in their battle against the Democrats’ expansive view of “disparate impact” — the idea that discrimination doesn’t have to be intentional.

Newell, who often seemed like a spectator at his own hearing on Tuesday, said he was nevertheless happy to get a public airing of his case before Congress. But as a 54-year-old black Mississippi native and an Obama supporter, he said he had no interest in becoming a pawn in a larger partisan battle.

“Let’s put it this way,” he said in an interview after the hearing. “I’m a minority, so I’ve seen the effects of discrimination. I have no problem with the [Democrats’] disparate impact theory at all.”

Newell’s story has a tangled history going back to Vice President Walter Mondale, who sponsored the landmark Fair Housing Act as a U.S. senator from Minnesota in the 1960s. He and other civil libertarians grew concerned last year about the legal ramifications of a lawsuit brought by Twin Cities’ landlords, who contended that St. Paul’s strict code enforcement depleted the city’s housing stock for minorities.

Although the case was brought by mostly white landlords, it was based on the theory that St. Paul’s housing policies hit poor minority renters the hardest.

Considering the conservative drift of the high court under Chief Justice John Roberts, Mondale and some inside the Obama administration encouraged St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman to avoid a Supreme Court showdown that would require the city to argue against the notion of “disparate impact” — the foundation of civil rights law in housing and banking discrimination.

But the city, represented by now Minnesota Supreme Court Justice David Lillehaug, had a price.

House GOPers contend that as an enticement, the Justice Department agreed to stay out of Newell’s suit, which accused St. Paul officials of fraud in some $200 million in HUD grants for training, contracting and workforce development.

St. Paul and federal officials argue that Newell’s case, like that of the landlords, has no merit. A federal judge’s decision to dismiss it last year is proof of that, city officials argue. A similar whistleblower suit alleging fraud against Twin Cities officials also is on the ropes, with a federal judge finding in December that its claims were “incomprehensible.”

St. Paul officials say that despite the federal government’s action, Newell’s case remains on appeal before the U.S. Eighth District Court of Appeals.

“It didn’t deprive him of an opportunity to pursue his case,” said St. Paul City Attorney Sara Grewing.

But documents compiled by House Republican investigators make clear that behind-the-scenes there was a vigorous debate about Newell’s case, with B. Todd Jones, the U.S. attorney for Minnesota, apparently changing sides along the way.

Perez as ‘mastermind’

The alleged mastermind of what Republicans are calling an improper “quid pro quo” is Perez, a top Justice Department official whom President Obama has tapped to head the Labor Department.

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