Friday, August 06, 2010

Eric Holder's slush fund

Byron York is reporting on an tricky new policy that the Holder Justice Department has established in order to funnel money to favored interest groups. This is how it works:
The Justice Department has found a new way to pursue civil rights lawsuits, using the powers of the Civil Rights Division not just to win compensation for victims of alleged discrimination but also to direct large sums of money to activist groups that are not discrimination victims and not connected to a particular suit.

In the past, when the Civil Rights Division filed suit against, say, a bank or a landlord, alleging discrimination in lending or rentals, the cases were often settled by the defendant paying a fine to the U.S. Treasury and agreeing to put aside a sum of money to compensate the alleged discrimination victims. There was then a search for those victims -- people who were actually denied a loan or an apartment -- who stood to be compensated. After everyone who could be found was paid, there was often money left over. That money was returned to the defendant.

Now, Attorney General Eric Holder and Civil Rights Division chief Thomas Perez have a new plan. Any unspent money will not go back to the defendant but will instead go to a "qualified organization" approved by the Justice Department. And if there is not enough unspent money -- that will be determined by the Department -- then the defendant might be required to come up with more money to give to the "qualified organization."
If the purpose of the penalty is to compensate those who were originally harmed, then leftover money should go back to the defendant. If the purpose of the penalty was punitive, then the extra money should go to the Treasury. But not in Obama's administration. Not when there is the possibility to funnel money to their favored activist groups.
Republicans are particularly concerned that the "qualified organizations" money might end up with groups that are associated with the community organizing group formerly known as ACORN. Republican lawmakers want to avoid sending federal money to groups that Congress has deemed unsuitable to receive it.

But the concerns of Republicans, and perhaps some Democrats, go beyond ACORN and other activist groups. The new Civil Rights Division tactic represents a departure from a fundamental principle of such cases, which is the pursuit of justice on behalf of actual victims. "If the Department of Justice recovers funds for alleged civil rights violations, the money should go to compensate victims or to the Treasury," says Bob Driscoll, who was a top official in the Civil Rights Division during the first two years of the George W. Bush administration. "The practice of the Civil Rights Division steering settlement funds to favored advocacy groups is at odds with both civil rights laws and common sense. If Congress wants to fund certain advocacy groups or set up grants for agencies to award in order to promote non-discrimination, it can. But allowing the Civil Rights Division to steer a defendant's money to its ideological allies is offensive."
Yup, it sure is offensive. Holder has established a policy that lets him squeeze businesses and then channel the money to whichever groups he picks. Quite clever of him, isn't it?

And the man Holder put in charge of the Civil Rights Division in the Justice Department, Thomas Perez, seems to be just the guy to cast a large net to go after whichever business he perceives to have violated someone's rights.
Perez sometimes speaks emotionally about the vast scope of his responsibility. The job of the Civil Rights Division, he says, is to bring light to Americans "living in the shadows." There are "our Muslim-American brothers and sisters subject to post-9/11 backlash" and "communities of color disproportionately affected by the subprime meltdown," and "LGBT brothers and sisters ... forced to confront discrimination" and "all too many children lacking quality education." And many, many more.
Every business is now at risk for a Justice Department suit. York details this ridiculous threat against Amazon for what seems like an admirable experiment to facilitate students using Kindle readers for their textbooks. On the face of it, this experimental program sounds like just the thing that liberals would like.
Last year, the schools -- among them Princeton, Arizona State and Case Western Reserve -- wanted to know if e-book readers would be more convenient and less costly than traditional textbooks. The environmentally conscious educators also wanted to reduce the huge amount of paper students use to print files from their laptops.
Sounds perfect, doesn't it? It saves money and the environment. What could be the problem with such an idea? Ah, you must not be thinking like a civil rights activist. There is always a victim somewhere, and I'm not talking about the textbook publishers. Thomas Perez's Civil Rights Division decided to investigate if this policy violated the Americans With Disabilities Act because Kindle's menu functions require vision to operate and so discriminate against the blind. The blind could use the function on Kindle that turns text to speech, but they needed someone to turn it on for them. And so the Civil Rights Division came after Amazon.
In May 2009, Amazon announced the pilot program, under which it would provide Kindle DX readers to a few universities. It wasn't a huge deal; Princeton's plan, for example, involved three courses and a total of 51 students, and only in the fall semester of that year. University spokeswoman Emily Aronson says the program was voluntary and students could opt out of using the Kindle. "There were no students with a visual impairment who had registered for the three classes," says Aronson.

Nevertheless, in June 2009, the federation filed a complaint with the Justice Department, accusing the schools of violating the ADA. Perez and his team went to work.

"We acted swiftly to respond to complaints we received about the use of the Amazon Kindle," Perez recently told a House committee. "We must remain vigilant to ensure that as new devices are introduced, people with disabilities are not left behind."

The Civil Rights Division informed the schools they were under investigation. In subsequent talks, the Justice Department demanded the universities stop distributing the Kindle; if blind students couldn't use the device, then nobody could. The Federation made the same demand in a separate lawsuit against Arizona State.
The result? The schools agreed to drop the program. Better no one get to use the Kindle if blind students who weren't in the class couldn't use it.

And as York reports, the private market is taking care of the problem without any help from the Justice Department. They're issuing a new Kindle that the blind can use. Instead of wielding the heavy threat of a federal lawsuit, let the private market figure out how to make the product accessible to all possible customers. And get the government away from stopping everyone from gaining a benefit just because someone somewhere might not benefit.

And do you have any doubt that, if this whole issue hadn't been resolved as it was, Amazon might have been on the hook for a huge monetary penalty? And since there was no blind person actually affected by the program, there would have been lots of leftover money to go into Holder's slush fund to give to chosen activist organizations.