It’s a well-worn workplace maxim: Find your bosses digging through your e-mails, and start cleaning out your cubicle. You’re done. Something’s going to stick.
But what about when management sets up a de facto dragnet to spy on an entire department, which was just the dilemma ex-employees of former Department of Justice official Hans von Spakovsky claim they found themselves in two years ago?
At the time, multiple sources claim, the current Federal Election Commission nominee — who had a career appointment — acted hand-in-hand with senior Justice Department official Bradley Schlozman to philosophically redecorate the agency’s voting rights section.
“The responsibility for this gutting is partly von Spakovsky’s,” Joseph Rich told Roll Call on Tuesday. Rich, a Justice Department lawyer for more than 35 years, was the civilian head of the agency’s voting section from 1999 to 2005. “This guy was the de facto section chief.”
Through the White House, von Spakovsky — who spoke freely to reporters on a range of subjects prior to his confirmation hearing last week — declined to comment on the allegations.
Through a series of administrative maneuvers, former employees claim ex-special counsel von Spakovsky, working in tandem with Schlozman, took revenge out on DOJ troublemakers and purged the agency’s voting rights section. Von Spakovsky especially, some former employees claim, was not shy about his distaste of Justice Department bureaucrats, a defining trait at the locus of his alleged bullying and retaliation.
“What drives Hans is a deep, abiding mistrust of civil servants,” said Toby Moore, a former DOJ voting rights employee who now works at American University. “That really was his guiding principle … animosity for civil servants.”
Von Spakovsky, now serving a temporary Republican appointment to the FEC, has been nominated by the White House to serve a full six-year term. While the process for FEC nominations is normally placid, von Spakovsky’s appointment has come under fire amid allegations he pushed controversial — and, some critics allege, possibly discriminatory — election laws in Georgia and elsewhere while at the Justice Department. During the confirmation hearings last week, Senators grilled von Spakovsky on his alleged involvement in controversial state-level cases, a tense exchange but one that yielded few new facts.
While Senators gave von Spakovsky additional time to answer questions on his involvement in the Georgia case and others — which alone may seal his fate — discussions with former DOJ subordinates suggest von Spakovsky’s daily involvement in management decisions belies his previous assertions he was merely a career soldier taking orders from political higher-ups.
“My job as a career counsel was to provide legal advice and make recommendations to the assistant attorney general,” von Spakovsky testified at last week’s hearing.
But former career DOJ employees say von Spakovsky’s professional status was an anomaly, rooted in an early 2001 White House directive to shape new legislation on voting requirements by placing three known quantities at the Justice Department, von Spakovsky and two others. Rather than use political appointments for all three, Rich said the White House used a political position to install Mark Metcalf, but an official career post for von Spakovsky. Rich said the team even worked on a different floor than his section’s 70 or so employees. Prior to Congress passing the Help America Vote Act, the three had very little contact with the rest of the staff.
“The fact that [von Spakovsky] had a career slot was purely a technicality,” Moore said. “They appeared in the voting section soon after the election and were their own little unit.”
“They were the Bush administration’s lead on trying to frame [HAVA],” Moore continued.
But that all changed after HAVA’s passage in 2002. Having done the White House’s bidding in helping craft the legislation, von Spakovsky’s proven acumen for election-law issues also put him on the fast track at the Justice Department, where the former Fulton County, Ga., election official was named special counsel, Moore said. Once promoted to the front office in 2003, both former employees claim, von Spakovsky essentially ran the department.
“I don’t think you can overestimate his influence on the voting section; his claim that he was merely providing legal advice to others was very misleading,” Moore said. “He was a supervisor, basically … in charge of the voting section.”
During his tenure in the front office, Moore said, von Spakovsky, whom he otherwise considers “pleasant,” also was a frequent source of confrontation, a sentiment echoed by others in the department.
“He’s a very capable guy, but hard to get along with,” Moore said. “He didn’t handle disagreement well.”
Just before von Spakovsky was named to the Federal Election Commission in late 2005, Moore filed a complaint with the Office of Professional Responsibility against a Justice Department supervisor regarding the controversial Georgia redistricting case.
A few days before Moore was to be interviewed regarding the complaint, he was hit with an OPR complaint by Schlozman and von Spakovsky, who allegedly mined what they thought was an incriminating e-mail detailing section secrets to an outsider. The complaint against Moore, Rich confirmed, was dismissed within months.
“This was a supervisor over me, who had disagreed with me on a number of occasions and he’s going to my e-mails and forwarding them to the Office of Professional Responsibility,” Moore said. “One of the things he also got to doing was changing people’s work evaluations and inserting negative comments. People who felt on the other side of some of an issue from him … it had a chilling effect on attorneys and their investigations.”
Rich, the former career head of the voting section, said Schlozman and von Spakovsky fingered Moore through an elaborate e-mail dragnet set up to catch an ex-section lawyer suspected of wrongdoing.
The dredge, Rich suspects, led them not only to Moore’s e-mail but to many others in the section as well.
“Schlozman and Hans [were] rummaging through peoples’ e-mails … purportedly e-mails that might be relevant to the investigation of this attorney, but what happened is that they found an e-mail from Toby to this attorney,” Rich said. “They then used that e-mail to bring a complaint against Toby … clearly retaliation for him filing his complaint.”