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Sen. Vitter threatens to block Obama nominee for Labor secretary

May 10, 2012: United States Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, left, is joined by Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Roy Austin, during a news conference in Phoenix.AP

Republican Sen. David Vitter vowed Monday to block President Obama's nominee for Labor secretary, citing a past run-in with his state of Louisiana as well as the nominee's role in the controversial voter intimidation case involving the New Black Panther Party. 

The president on Monday tapped Justice Department official Thomas Perez for the Labor post. The candidate, though, was already being questioned over a newly released report that found he gave incomplete testimony on the decision to drop charges against members of the new Black Panthers. 

"Thomas Perez's record should be met with great suspicion by my colleagues for his spotty work related to the New Black Panther case, but Louisianians most certainly should have cause for concern about this nomination," Vitter said in a statement. 

The senator went on to cite a separate incident in which the Justice Department filed suit against Louisiana over its voter registration efforts. Vitter's office said he would block the Perez nomination until the Justice Department responds to a 2011 letter on the issue. 

"Perez was greatly involved in the DOJ's partisan full court press to pressure Louisiana's Secretary of State to only enforce one side of the law -- the side that specifically benefits the politics of the president and his administration at the expense of identity security of each and every Louisianian on the voter rolls," Vitter said. 

Perez, an assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, would replace Hilda Solis at Labor if confirmed. Obama, touting Perez' personal story as the son of immigrants who became the first lawyer in his family, urged the Senate to act quickly on the nomination. 

"Tom's knowledge and experience will make him an outstanding secretary of Labor," Obama said. 

The new report by the Justice Department's inspector general, though, is likely to provide fodder for Republicans like Vitter. The report challenged testimony Perez gave to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, when he claimed in 2010 that no political leadership was involved in the decision to dismiss three of the four defendants in a lawsuit the George W. Bush administration brought against the New Black Panther Party. The high-profile case involved allegations of voter intimidation outside a Philadelphia polling place in the 2008 election. 

The IG report found that, despite Perez' testimony, top political appointees were looped in on the decision-making. Further, the report said Attorney General Eric Holder "was briefed and generally indicated his approval" of a decision to dismiss some of the defendants. 

"We found that Perez's testimony did not reflect the entire story regarding the involvement of political appointees," said the report. 

"We did not find that Perez intentionally misled the commission," said the IG. "Nevertheless, given he was testifying as a department witness before the commission, we believe that Perez should have sought more details ... about the nature and extent of the participation of political employees in the NBPP decision in advance of his testimony before the commission." 

The report said Perez left out from his testimony that Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli and a deputy associate attorney general were involved in consultations about the decision. 

IG Michael Horowitz said there are no rules prohibiting political appointees from participating in such decision making and that Perez did not know about the incidents when he testified to the commission in May 2010. 

Separately, the wide-ranging IG report also concluded that deep ideological polarization in the Justice Department's voting rights section in both the Bush and Obama administrations fueled disputes that in some instances harmed the office's proper functioning. The department's inspector general said that on some occasions the disputes involved harassment of employees and managers. 

Despite the polarization, the IG said its review did not substantiate claims of political or racial bias in decision-making. 

Perez was drawing GOP complaints over other issues as well. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., called the pick "unfortunate and needlessly divisive," calling his views on illegal immigration "far outside the mainstream." 

Democrats roundly voiced support for Perez, however. "Tom Perez will bring an impressive resume to the top spot at the Department of Labor," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said. "A former Secretary of Labor in Maryland, and a fierce defender of workers' rights and civil rights, Tom is uniquely suited to serve in this important post at a critical time when Congress will be considering issues like immigration reform, reducing unemployment, and continuing our economic recovery." 

The White House stressed Perez's accomplishments in the Civil Rights Division, including the settlement of three major fair lending cases. 

"Tom is a dedicated public servant who has spent his career fighting to keep the American Dream within reach for hardworking middle class families and those striving to get into the middle class," a White House official said. 

In choosing Perez, the son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Obama would be placing an already high-ranking Hispanic official in a Cabinet slot. Perez, a lawyer with a degree from Harvard Law School, would replace Solis, a former California congresswoman and the nation's first Hispanic labor secretary. 

Before taking the job as assistant attorney general, Perez was secretary of Maryland's Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, which enforces state consumer rights, workplace safety and wage and hour laws. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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