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Is Privacy Act Violated as Voting War’s GOP Hit Man is Fed Leaks By Justice Department Mole?

Will the DOJ investigate leaks in attacks on Voting Section employees and major voting rights decisions?
 
 
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Hans von Spakovsky at Civil Rights Commission hearing

 
 
 
 

A crusading GOP critic of the Obama Justice Department’s Voting Section, Hans von Spakovsky, has admitted to having Department sources that are leaking apparently confidential and highly personal information that he is using to viciously attack Voting Section staff and to smear the Department at large.

Leaking such information—including details from ongoing Inspector General inquiries into a previous media leak and detailing the behavior of a DOJ employee related to that internal investigation—would not only violate DOJ confidentiality rules, but also could violate the federal Privacy Act, which governs how agencies are to control records.

Von Spakovsky’s boasts of leaks are peppered throughout his latest article attacking the Voting Section as it is reaching key thresholds in congressional redistricting cases and concluding if numerous new state laws—toughening voter ID, regulating voter registration drives and curtailing early voting—violate the Voting Rights Act.

The Justice Department did not respond to requests for comments on the latest Voting Section leaks. In previous instances of leaks surrounding high-profile DOJ activities, however, the department’s Inspector General office has launched investigations to identify the sources and determine what DOJ policies or laws might be violated.

Von Spakovsky currently is a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

Partisan, Hypocrite, Bully

Von Spakovsky’s controversial record and hyper-partisanship are well known in the civil rights community. He ran the Voting Section during the middle of George W. Bush’s presidency, steering it away from its traditional mission of defending voting rights of minority communities to policing all but non-existent voter fraud. During his tenure, more than half the career staff in the Voting Section left, saying he and other Bush appointees politicized the Section to an unprecedented degree.

After Bush appointed von Spakovsky to the Federal Election Commission, seven former career prosecutors with more than 90 years of combined federal service wrote a letter to the U.S. Senate opposing his nomination and describing his abusive management style, including rewriting performance evaluations of staff that he perceived were Democrats—undermining if not ending the careers of numerous civil servants.

“We have never seen a political appointee exercise this level of control over the day-to-day operation of the Voting Section,” the former Voting Section attorneys said in their June 18, 2007 letter. They also noted how von Spakovsky published an anonymous article in favor of Georgia’s voter ID law at the same time the DOJ was reviewing it under the Voting Rights Act—but he did not recuse himself from that assessment, another conflict of interest and apparent violation of DOJ protocol.

The hallmarks of this zealotry are still in play, particularly making personal attacks based on anonymous sources and leaks that serve his partisan agenda. That von Spakovsky’s most recent missive relies on DOJ leaks to attack a Voting Section employee who he believes knew of another leak is plainly hypocritical, but the big picture here is that he is willing to damage careers to score political points.

His most recent article published on Dec. 21 was hardly the first of its kind to personally attack DOJ staffers using alleged information not available to the public. But his latest piece—picked up by numerous right-wing websites—boasts of sources and alleged accounts from Inspector General interviews to slam DOJ for not punishing an analyst who may have perjured herself about a document leak to the Washington Postin 2005—when he headed the Voting Section.

The apparent motive behind this seemingly obscure attack is to discredit the Voting Section in its current litigation over GOP-drawn congressional redistricting maps in Texas, because the analyst who he is now attacking worked on Texas redistricting in 2003 and again today.

“A career employee in the Voting Section… has confessed to committing perjury, sources say,” is how von Spakovsky’s latest attack begins. “And who was the civil rights analyst whose name was on the “rambling, barely coherent memo” leaked to the Washington Post?” He answers his own question, not just naming the analyst and attacking their job performance and political beliefs, but he also refers to an Inspector General investigation, interviews, and evidence, such as e-mails, to claim there was a “cover up” of the alleged perjury.

“For the Voting Section chief to assign this admitted perjurer to review Texas’s 2011 decennial redistricting submission is a serious affront to justice,” he writes. “It should greatly concern Texas authorities, who have a right to expect an objective, impartial, nonpolitical and non-ideological review of their plan.”

The U.S. Supreme Court is slated to review aspects of the DOJ’s Texas redistricting case in early January, just as the case is also making its way through the federal courts. Many political observers have said that the outcome of redistricting in Texas and Florida will determine which party is likely to control the House of Representatives after 2012.

The Pattern: Narrow Attacks, Broad Smears

Von Spakovsky’s latest missive has been part of an ongoing pattern where he assails individuals working inside Justice to serve his larger goal of damaging the Department during a Democratic Administration.

In January 2011, writing in the online National Review, he attacked the new head of the DOJ’s Office of Professional Responsibility not merely as “a highly political person who… made no effort to hide her contempt for President Bush,” but, again citing leaked documents, said that she secretly rifled through colleagues’ desks and files when the House Judiciary Committee was investigating the Bush Administration’s firing of nine U.S. attorneys for failure to pursue voter fraud cases.

The new OPR head was found to be “completely untrustworthy,” he wrote, citing confidential DOJ sources, and “someone who treated subordinates like chattel.” He concluded, “This sounds more like the behavior of a less-than-stellar high school student than that of a DOJ lawyer.”

But it is von Spakovsky who sounds like a high school student, if not a high school bully. And there are questions whether he is fabricating personal details in his abusive attacks. For example, the analyst at the center of his latest screed over Texas apparently did not work on the same floor as him—raising questions about his sources and his account’s truthfulness.

What von Spakovsky may not realize while plying his attacks is that his admission may trigger a DOJ investigation into his source or sources. To begin with, every attorney who is hired by the Department must agree to abide by the federal regulations concerning confidentiality surrounding their work at the agency. Moreover, the Privacy Act also seeks to protect individuals from government leaks.

The Privacy Act

The Privacy Act governs how federal agencies acquire, maintain and control records containing information about individuals. The Act requires that agencies maintain control over confidential materials, monitor and track disclosures, and discusses the “adverse effects” that unauthorized leaks can bring. It discusses injuries such as intentional embarrassment and humiliation and offers legal remedies to victims.

Whether the Department will investigate these latest leaks is unknown, as they are recent and the DOJ almost never comments on matters such as Inspector General investigations. Nor is it known whether von Spakovsky would cooperate in any inquiry by the DOJ—despite his professed fealty for the Department’s honor. 

This latest tirade would barely pass as political inside ball on the conservative fringe were it not for the stakes, as the Voting Section is not only involved in redistricting litigation in Texas and other states, notably Florida, but as it is poised to decide if new voting laws in Texas, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama can be implemented in 2012.

On the Friday before Christmas, the DOJ announced it was rejecting South Carolina’s voter ID law, saying it was discriminatory under the federal Voting Rights Act. But the DOJ also approved Georgia’s new redistricting map on the same day—suggesting that it is not quite the Democratic juggernaut that von Spakovsky and his ally, J. Christian Adams, another disgruntled ex-DOJ attorney and crusading Republican, claim it is.

Still, GOP partisans like von Spakovsky do not want to see an assertive or effective DOJ Voting Section as that process unfolds.

“When zealots… for whom the truth is no obstacle to the pursuit of partisan gains, are allowed to control the levers of justice, we all suffer,” he concluded his piece, which has been touted by right-wing websites as “breaking news of confessions of perjury” and “more about the culture of lies inside the Obama Justice Department.”

However, this time he may have gone too far. That is because it is von Spakovsky’s source—not the latest DOJ employee that he is attacking—that apparently has been violating Department protocols, and quite possibly the federal Privacy Act.

Steven Rosenfeld covers democracy issues for AlterNet and is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).