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Obama Labor Pick Questioned over Past Record

By Roy Maurer  4/19/2013
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Update: Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee announced April 24, 2013, that a vote on Thomas Perez's nomination as Labor Department secretary has been postponed until May 8, after Republicans asked for more time to review his work at the U.S. Department of Justice.

President Barack Obama’s pick to lead the Department of Labor (DOL) mostly sailed through his nomination hearing April 18, 2013, but still faces some resistance toward confirmation.

Obama nominated Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez March 18, 2013, to be the next labor secretary, replacing Hilda Solis, who resigned from the post in January.

Perez, the head of the civil rights division at the Department of Justice (DOJ) since 2009, testified before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee about his past record and what his priorities will be if confirmed.

When asked what his top priority would be as labor secretary, Perez responded “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

Referencing the broad range of DOL responsibilities, he testified that other priorities would be reauthorizing the Workforce Investment Act with bipartisan support, pension security, enforcement of wage and hour laws, job safety and equal opportunity in the workplace.

Perez touted his accomplishments at the civil rights division, including increasing by 40 percent the number of human trafficking cases, stepping up hate crimes enforcement and working for people with disabilities.

“So much of what the division does is nuts-and-bolts law enforcement that may not make the headlines, but is critically important in making communities safer and ensuring a level playing field,” Perez testified.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and the committee chairman, said that Perez’s best credential was that he had built a strong reputation as a consensus-builder while leading the Maryland Department of Labor.

“His outstanding work in Maryland has won him the support of the business community and worker advocates alike,” Harkin said.

“He spearheaded major initiatives on potentially controversial issues, such as unemployment insurance reform and worker misclassification, while finding common ground between workers and businesses to build sensible, commonsense solutions.”

Republican questioning often turned to his tenure heading the DOJ civil rights division, and specifically Perez’s involvement in a reported “secret deal” with the city of St. Paul, Minn., in which the DOJ agreed to drop two whistle-blower cases against the city in exchange for the city’s withdrawal of a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Perez’s critics have alleged that Perez thought the Supreme Court case might have risked limiting the disparate impact legal theory used to enforce civil rights laws nationwide.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., criticized Perez for “manipulating the legal process to try to get the result you want from the Supreme Court in a way that’s inappropriate for the assistant attorney general of the United States.”

Perez responded that the case was a “poor vehicle” for addressing the viability of disparate impact theory.

Republicans also questioned Perez about the allegations in a March 2013 DOJ Inspector General’s report that found his division had a record of selective law enforcement, questionable judgment, harassment of employees based on political views and a lack of professionalism among some division employees. Perez was asked about the DOJ’s aggressiveness in challenging voting rights laws, especially in Republican-leaning states, and about the “politically charged environment” at the division.

Perez’s decision to bring a case against South Carolina’s voter-ID law earned him a rebuke from Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who said that Perez’s management style “seems to have a political perspective, a political bias that seems not to be open, not to be balanced, and certainly not to be fair.”

Committee Democrats came to his defense. Harkin said Perez had been the target of mudslinging.

“I can assure this committee that Tom Perez has the strongest possible record of professional integrity, and that any allegations to the contrary are unfounded. Having delved deeper into the facts and circumstances giving rise to the spurious allegations against him, I can draw only one inevitable conclusion: that some people don’t like Tom Perez precisely because he is passionate about enforcing our civil rights laws and protecting people’s rights.”

Some lines of questioning conspicuously absent from the hearing included what Perez's position is on the proposed elimination of the advice exemption under the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act; and on card check legislation, which would effectively eliminate secret-ballot elections commonly used in workplace representation contests.

Harkin said a vote on Perez’s nomination would be held April 25, 2013, but Alexander indicated that outstanding Congressional requests for information will need to be resolved before that happens. Perez responded that he has been cooperative and, so far, has provided 1,400 documents to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which requested a trove of e-mails concerning the St. Paul actions.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him at @SHRMRoy

Related Article:

Mixed Reaction to Perez Could Signal Contentious Confirmation, HR News, March 2013




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