McClatchy Washington Bureau

Posted on Fri, Dec. 14, 2007


Justice's voting chief steps down amid controversy

Greg Gordon | McClatchy Newspapers


last updated: December 14, 2007 06:53:03 PM


WASHINGTON The Justice Department's voting rights chief stepped down Friday amid allegations that he'd used the position to aid a Republican strategy to suppress African-American votes.


John Tanner became the latest of about a dozen senior department officials, including former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who've resigned in recent months in a scandal over the politicization of the Justice Department in the Bush administration.


In recent months, McClatchy has reported on a pattern of decision-making within the department's Civil Rights Division, of which the Voting Rights Section is a part, that tended to narrow the voting rights of Democratic-leaning minorities.


Tanner has been enmeshed for months in congressional investigations over his stewardship of the unit that was established to protect minority-voting rights. He drew increased focus this fall after he told a Latino group: "African-Americans don't become elderly the way white people do. They die."


In addition, the Justice Department opened an internal investigation into allegations that Tanner unfairly had deprived two veteran African-American staffers of bonuses and that he and a deputy had misused tax dollars on official trips.


Department spokesman Peter Carr said in a statement that Tanner, of his own accord, ``made the decision to pursue (an) opportunity" to work in the Office of Special Counsel for Immigration-Related Unfair Employment Practices. But his transfer to a lower-profile job appeared to continue a quiet housecleaning that began after retired judge Michael Mukasey took over as attorney general early last month with a vow to rid the agency of partisanship.


Chris Coates, a veteran lawyer in the Voting Rights Section, was named the acting chief.


The change drew a hopeful reaction from congressional Democrats.


Michigan Rep. John Conyers, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, assailed the department for "a remarkably poor record of protecting voting rights" and expressed hope that Tanner's successor "will mark a departure from efforts to limit the participation of elderly and minority voters."


In an e-mail note to staffers announcing his departure, Tanner said that "to better assist in a smooth transition, I am stepping down from my position as section chief immediately while I pack and sort through three decades of work."


While Tanner hailed his accomplishments, asserting that the section had "tripled the number of new lawsuits" compared with the period before he took office, critics have charged that the department has filed few suits on behalf of African-American voting rights.


Shortly after he became section chief in 2005, Tanner reversed the recommendation of the career staff that the department object to a Georgia law requiring voters in that state to produce photo identification cards. The staff had argued that the law would disenfranchise minority voters.


A federal judge later blocked implementation of the law, likening it to a Jim Crow-era poll tax because poor minority voters, who are most likely to lack driver's licenses, would be required to buy photo IDs.


This October, after making his comments about the shorter life span of blacks while defending the Georgia law, Tanner apologized for his "clumsiness" before a House Judiciary subcommittee.


Tanner also drew harsh criticism for directing a crackdown to force states to purge hundreds of thousands of names from voter registration rolls, an initiative that critics charge was aimed at disenfranchising minority voters, who move frequently.


He's facing an investigation by the department's Office of Professional Responsibility into multiple allegations that he mistreated staff and abused his travel privileges. At least two of the inquiries stem from formal complaints from members of his staff.


In late November, the Web site TPM Muckraker reported that Tanner had made taxpayer-funded trips to Hawaii for three straight years, twice staying a full week although his work was completed within a couple of business days. The Web site said he'd made 36 trips covering 97 days since taking the helm in May 2005.


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