Obama nominates Thomas Perez as labor secretary

Monday, March 18, 2013 - 8:03am

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Monday nominated Thomas Perez, the assistant attorney general heading the Justice Department's civil rights division, as labor secretary.

A former federal prosecutor and an official in his home state of Maryland, Perez was sworn in to his current post in October 2009.

CNN's Jessica Yellin reported earlier this month that Obama would name Perez to the Cabinet position.

If approved, he would take the position recently held by Hilda Solis, a former congresswoman who resigned in January who also is Hispanic.

In a letter to colleagues announcing her departure, Solis said she'd "taken our mission to heart."

"As the daughter of parents who worked in factories, paid their union dues and achieved their goal of a middle class life, and as the first Latina to head a major federal agency, it has been an incredible honor to serve," she wrote.

Perez and his office have been active in several high-profile cases in recent years.

In 2010, Perez launched a probe into the law enforcement tactics of Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio after the controversial sheriff's hard line anti-immigration policies led to accusations of civil rights violations.

The Justice Department determined that Arpaio had engaged in "pattern or practice of wide-ranging discrimination against Latinos and retaliatory actions against individuals who criticized" his department's activities.

Arpaio condemned the investigation as politically motivated and a "witch hunt" provoked by the Obama administration's disfavor of the state's controversial immigration law.

In October 2010, Perez filed a legal brief in response to a lawsuit brought by local landowners trying to prevent the construction of a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

In the friend-of-the court brief, Perez argued that practicing Islam is a freedom protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Perez also became involved in a controversial 2008 voting rights case after it drew attention from Republican legislators and became the target of a Justice Department inspector general's report that slapped the department's voting rights section for having a lack of professionalism and pervasive warring between employees who disagreed politically.

The case stemmed from a complaint against members of the New Black Panther Party who stood outside a polling station in Philadelphia on Election Day dressed in boots and berets and carrying a nightstick.

Civil charges for attempted voter intimidation were filed by the Bush administration, but later dropped against three of four defendants after Obama took office. Republicans accused the department's political leadership of getting involved in the decision.

Though Perez had not yet been confirmed as assistant attorney general overseeing the civil rights division when the decision was made, he said in testimony to Inspector General Michael Horowitz in May 2010 that politics played no part in the decision.

Horowitz was not satisfied with Perez's account of the situation, saying in his report that Perez should have tried to get more information before testifying. Perez was not accused of any wrongdoing, but he has been criticized for not doing enough to improve what the Inspector General described as a dysfunctional department with persistent ideological polarization spanning two administrations.

Before rising to the Justice Department position, Perez led Maryland's Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. That office is charged with "safeguarding workers, protecting consumers, providing a safety net and cultivating a thriving workforce," according to its website.

Perez also was on the Montgomery County Council from 2002 to 2006.

He had earlier spent 12 years as an attorney in the Justice Department's civil rights division, rising to become deputy assistant attorney general during the 1990s.

Perez also worked for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, and spent the final two years of the Clinton administration as head of the Health and Human Services Department's civil rights office.

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