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Sens. Kennedy And Whitehouse Letter On Caging

By Faiz Shakir on June 18, 2007 at 4:44 pm

UNITED STATES SENATE

Senators Demand DOJ Investigation Into Voter Suppression Allegations

Kennedy, Whitehouse Ask Whether Justice Officials Knew Former Rove Aide Allegedly Engaged in Illegal “Vote Caging” Before Naming Him Interim U.S. Attorney

Washington, D.C. — U.S. Senators Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) today called for a Justice Department investigation into allegations of illegal voter suppression tactics by Republican political operatives, including former Karl Rove aide Tim Griffin, during the 2004 elections. Griffin is now serving as interim U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas.

“At a time when the Department’s political independence and its commitment to enforcement of civil rights statutes have been called into doubt, it is vitally important that the Department thoroughly investigate these allegations of unlawful voter suppression, and the apparent failure of Department employees to forward to the appropriate authorities information they had about this practice,” the senators wrote in a letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

The letter cites voter suppression incidents by the Republican Party in the 1980s. During the 2004 elections, e-mail evidence suggests that Tim Griffin, then a political operative at the Republican National Committee, knew and approved of a program to “cage” voters — sending a political campaign mailing to targeted voters and challenging the right to vote of those whose mail was returned undelivered — in predominantly African-American neighborhoods in Jacksonville, Florida. Last year, Griffin was appointed interim U.S. Attorney without Senate confirmation, displacing a federal prosecutor who has testified he was told he was fired to make the job available for Griffin.

Today, Senators Kennedy and Whitehouse demanded an investigation by two DOJ watchdog agencies to determine whether Griffin may have violated the Voting Rights Act or other federal laws, and whether Justice Department officials knew of Griffin’s potentially unlawful activity when he was named U.S. Attorney.

Kennedy and Whitehouse are members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is conducting its own investigation into the unprecedented firing late last year of several U.S. Attorneys. Senator Kennedy, a longtime champion for voting rights, will chair a Judiciary Committee hearing this Thursday on oversight of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Whitehouse served as U.S. Attorney for Rhode Island from 1994-1998.

“It is very disturbing to think that Department officials may have approved the appointment of a United States Attorney knowing that he had engaged in racially targeted vote caging,” the senators wrote. “Moreover, it is very disturbing to think that senior officials were aware of this practice and did nothing to refer their information to relevant officials within the Department for investigation and a determination as to whether it was a violation of a consent decree or law within the Department’s jurisdiction to enforce.”

The full text of the letter is below.

June 18, 2007

Alberto Gonzales

Attorney General

United States Department of Justice

950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Washington, D.C. 20530

Dear Attorney General Gonzales:

We write to request that the Department of Justice promptly investigate allegations that the Republican National Committee engaged in “vote caging” during the 2004 elections. We also ask that you investigate whether any Department officials were aware of allegations that Tim Griffin had engaged in caging when he was appointed United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas, and whether appropriate action was taken. Caging is a reprehensible voter suppression tactic, and it may also violate federal law and the terms of applicable judicially enforceable consent decrees.

Caging is a voter suppression tactic whereby a political campaign sends mail marked “do not forward” to a targeted group of eligible voters. A more aggressive version involves sending mail to a targeted group of voters with instructions to sign and return an acknowledgment card. The campaign then creates a list of those whose mail was returned undelivered and challenges the right of those citizens to vote — on the ground that the voter does not live at the registered address. There are many reasons why registered mail might be “returned to sender” that have nothing to do with a voter’s eligibility. A voter might be an active member of the armed forces and stationed far from home, or a student registered at his parents’ address. Even a typographical error during entry of the voter’s registration information might result in an address that appears invalid.

The Republican Party has a long and ignominious record of caging — much of it focused on the African American community. For example, in 1981 the RNC sent a mass mailing into predominantly African American neighborhoods in New Jersey and used the resulting 45,000 letters marked “undeliverable” to challenge those voters’ eligibility. In 1986, the RNC used similar tactics in an effort to disenfranchise roughly 31,000 voters, most of them African American, in Louisiana. These tactics led to litigation and the RNC’s eventual signing of two consent decrees, still in effect, which bar the RNC from using “ballot security” programs ostensibly intended to prevent voter fraud as a tactic to target minority voters.

In 2004, however, allegations of caging by Republican officials arose again — this time over an effort to suppress votes in Florida. Emails sent in August 2004 by Tim Griffin, then Research Director and Deputy Communications Director of the RNC, demonstrate his knowledge and approval of a spreadsheet listing caged voters in predominantly African American neighborhoods in Jacksonville, Florida. (See attached.) Two years later, Mr. Griffin was appointed, without Senate confirmation, as United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas. Such actions appear plainly to violate the consent decrees signed by the RNC in 1981 and 1986. We ask that you investigate whether in these circumstances Mr. Griffin or others may also have violated the Voting Rights Act, the National Voter Registration Act, the mail fraud statute, or any other federal statute.

It also appears that high-ranking officials in the Department knew of Mr. Griffin’s involvement in caging. Monica Goodling recently testified to the House Judiciary Committee that she discussed concerns about Mr. Griffin’s involvement in caging with Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty during a session to prepare for Mr. McNulty’s Congressional testimony. It is very disturbing to think that Department officials may have approved the appointment of a United States Attorney knowing that he had engaged in racially targeted vote caging.

Moreover, it is very disturbing to think that senior officials were aware of this practice and did nothing to refer their information to relevant officials within the Department for investigation and a determination as to whether it was a violation of a consent decree or law within the Department’s jurisdiction to enforce.

We, therefore, ask the Office of the Inspector General and the Office of Professional Responsibility to conduct an investigation to determine who in DOJ knew about Mr. Griffin’s potentially unlawful activity before he was named interim U.S. Attorney, and whether appropriate action was taken on that knowledge, and to recommend whatever action is appropriate.

At a time when the Department’s political independence and its commitment to enforcement of civil rights statutes have been called into doubt, it is vitally important that the Department thoroughly investigate these allegations of unlawful voter suppression, and the apparent failure of Department employees to forward to the appropriate authorities information they had about this practice.

Sincerely,

Edward M. Kennedy Sheldon Whitehouse

United States Senator United States Senator

cc: Paul D. Clement, Solicitor General

Alice S. Fisher, Assistant Attorney General, Criminal Division

Wan J. Kim, Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division

Glenn A. Fine, Inspector General

H. Marshall Jarrett, Director, Office of Professional Responsibility