Washington, D.C. – 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.
While Labor appointments can be sleepy affairs in Washington, GOP opposition to Perez has given the Newell case new life in the political arena. Republicans also are championing his case in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which is expected to vote on the Perez nomination Wednesday.
Leading the charge has been Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican who helped introduced Newell in Tuesday's House hearing.
"I want to encourage whistleblowing," Grassley said. Other Republicans on the committee called Newell a taxpayer hero for sticking with his case over the past four years or more.
Democrats express sympathy for Newell, but say he is being used. "Today's hearing is not about Mr. Newell, or protecting whistleblowers. It's about Mr. Perez," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. "It's unfortunate that Mr. Newell has been dragged into this partisan fight."
The battle over Newell's case is no mere sideshow in the Perez nomination battle. Congressional records show that investigators on both sides have unearthed thousands of pages of documents, e-mails, and transcripts of interviews with officials from St. Paul to Washington.
While Democrats have accused Republicans of staging a broad political campaign to undermine civil rights protections that Perez was safeguarding, Republicans noted that their inquiry began more than six months ago, long before Obama nominated Perez.
Newell, for his part, tried to keep the attention Tuesday on his complaint, which focuses on what he says is a lack of employment, training and contracting opportunities for needy people in St. Paul, despite the millions of dollars the city has received from Washington for that purpose.
"It is from this aim that I have spent over 13 years of my life pursuing opportunities for the low-income community both in St. Paul, Minnesota, and nationally," he told the panel. "Please think of the true issue … employment … training …and contracting opportunities for people who really want and need them."
As he prepared to return to Minnesota, the father of five expressed hope, but mild frustration, too. "It's been difficult to address the issues I'm trying to address in this political climate," he said outside the committee room. "Their agenda isn't necessarily the agenda I've been pursuing."