President Obama’s nomination of Tom Perez as the next U.S. Labor Secretary has put a national spotlight on a generally low-profile Washington job -- and on a cluster of relatively obscure civil rights cases involving the city of St. Paul.
Conservatives in Congress have accused Perez, currently the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Justice Department, of having bargained away a case accusing the city of improperly using federal housing funds in exchange for the city’s decision to drop a housing discrimination case that could theoretically have wreaked havoc with federal civil rights law.
St. Paul city officials say the cases against the city are baseless.
But conservative legal scholars had long questioned the city’s motives in backing away from a Supreme Court showdown last year in the case of Magner v. Gallagher
, a long-shot challenge to the city’s housing codes by landlords in low-income neighborhoods. The landlords argued that strict housing code enforcement disproportionately decreased housing for minorities; The city took the line that federal fair housing law violations require intentional discrimination. That’s a position which, had it prevailed before the high court, might well have undermined a “disparate impact” standard in civil rights law, particularly in the area of lending discrimination.
St. Paul’s decision reportedly came at the behest of former Vice President Walter Mondale and other civil rights heavy-hitters. But GOP congressional investigators have suggested that the deal was brokered by Perez, overruling career Justice Department lawyers, in exchange for not joining a pair of lawsuits questioning whether St. Paul and other local jurisdictions had improperly used federal housing and jobs dollars.
The controversy also has been used by congressional Republicans opposing the nomination of the U.S. attorney for Minnesota, B. Todd Jones, as permanent director of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Chief among those raising the heat on Perez and Jones is Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which includes Minnesota Democrats Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken.
“It appears that Mr. Perez may be at the heart of a decision by the Justice Department to make a quid pro quo deal with the city of St. Paul… that ultimately led to the American taxpayer potentially losing hundreds of millions of dollars by declining to intervene in a False Claims Act,” Grassley said Monday. “I’m looking forward to hearing his testimony, because there are a lot of tough questions he should answer for the American people, including those regarding St. Paul.”
Franken put out a statement later in the day praising Perez: "He’s fought to make sure that everyone—including people with disabilities, immigrants, and those in the LGBT community—can work in a safe and fair environment."