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DOJ official denies blocking Native voting rights probe

A top Department of Justice aide on Tuesday denied quashing an investigation into Native voting rights but couldn't explain why federal officials did nothing about the issue.

Bradley J. Schlozman, who has held five titles at the department, disputed a news report that claimed he blocked the probe before the November 2004 election. "Nobody killed any investigation," the aide told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

But when asked to explain why federal officials failed defend the voting rights of Native Americans in Minnesota, Schlozman didn't have any answers. "It sounds like we didn't look into it," he testified. "I don't know what happened," he added.

The lack of clear information drew complaints from Democrats on the committee. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), the chairman, said Schlozman might surpass U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for the number of times he couldn't "recall" or "remember" certain details.

"I've lost count of the number of times you've said that," Leahy said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) said she couldn't understand why the federal government wouldn't intervene. "Here you have Native Americans who are going to be denied the right to vote ... and you say, well it's up to the secretary of state," she told Schlozman.

In his responses, Schlozman repeatedly referred to the "alleged" interpretation of then-secretary of state Mary Kiffmeyer, a Republican, on the use of tribal identification cards. She believed a state law barred the use of tribal IDs at voting polls off the reservation.

Her interpretation would have affected more than 20,000 American Indians and Alaska Natives in urban areas, including Minneapolis and St. Paul. Most Native voters favor the Democratic party and Minnesota was a battleground state in the 2004 election.

Despite her views -- which were documented in numerous media reports -- Schlozman acknowledged that he instructed government attorneys to contact Kiffmeyer about the issue. At the time he was the acting assistant general for the civil rights division at DOJ.

"The natural first person to go to would be the secretary of state to figure out what the interpretation is," he testified.

However, a federal judge thought more of the "alleged" interpretation than Schlozman. After the National Congress of American Indians and the American Civil Liberties Union sued Kiffmeyer, Judge James Rosenbaum blocked the state from preventing the use of tribal ID off the reservation.

"Now I can vote," Bonnie Dorr-Charwood, a Mille Lacs Ojibwe woman with a tribal ID, told The Minneapolis Star Tribune after the ruling was issued.

The Schlozman dispute plays into allegations that the Bush administration took political considerations into account in pursuing voting rights cases. Leahy and Feinstein noted that DOJ brought federal charges that affected a liberal learning advocacy group shortly before the November 2006 election.

It also touches on the scandal over the firings of several federal prosecutors. After U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger of Minnesota raised concerns about Native voting rights in his state, he was placed on a list for potential removal, according to The Los Angeles Times.

Heffelfinger left of his own accord in February 2006. But a former DOJ aide testified last month that political appointees in Washington -- including associates of Schlozman -- were concerned that Heffelfinger spent "too much time" on Native issues.

And of the eight U.S. Attorneys who were fired in December 2006, five of them served in states with significant Indian Country. All were members of DOJ's Native American Issues Subcommittee, which Heffelfinger chaired until his departure. His replacement as chair, Margaret Chiara of Western Michigan, was among those who were ousted.

However, Schlozman denied speaking to anyone about Heffelfinger. He also said he didn't why Monica Goodling, the former DOJ aide who testified under a grant of immunity from Congress, would have cited Heffelfinger's record to Native issues.

The controversy has tribal leaders worried. Last week, NCAI President Joe Garcia said Goodling's testimony "confirms concerns the Native American community has held for some time regarding the DOJ's commitment to the safety of Native Americans."

Garcia and NCAI will be looking further into the issue next week at the group's mid-year conference in Anchorage, Alaska. Heffelfinger and three of the fired U.S. Attorneys -- Chiara, Paul Charlton of Arizona and Dan Bogden of Nevada -- are holding a panel discussion on Monday.

Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing:
Statements/Testimony (June 5, 2006)

Relevant Links:
National Congress of American Indians -