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Ashcroft Justice Department tries to hide criticism of self in diversity audit
by DAVID JOHNSTON and ERIC LICHTBLAU
The New York Post
October 31, 2003

An internal report that harshly criticized the Justice Department's diversity efforts was edited so heavily when it was posted on the department's Web site two weeks ago that half of its 186 pages, including the summary, were blacked out.

The deleted passages, electronically recovered by a self-described "information archaeologist" in Tucson, portrayed the department's record on diversity as seriously flawed, specifically in the hiring, promotion and retention of minority lawyers.

The unedited report, completed in June 2002 by the consulting firm KPMG, found that minority employees at the department, which is responsible for enforcing the country's civil rights laws, perceive their own workplace as biased and unfair.

"The department does face significant diversity issues," the report said. "Whites and minorities as well as men and women perceive differences in many aspects of the work climate. For example, minorities are significantly more likely than whites to cite stereotyping, harassment and racial tension as characteristics of the work climate. Many of these differences are also present between men and women, although to a lesser extent."

Another deleted part said efforts to promote diversity "will take extraordinarily strong leadership" from the attorney general's office and other Justice Department offices.

Even complimentary conclusions were deleted, like one that said "attorneys across demographic groups believe that the Department is a good place to work" and another that said "private industry cites DOJ as a trend-setter for diversity." Beyond that, a recommendation that the department should "increase public visibility of diversity issues," was kept out of the public report.

The edited version gave a much narrower view of the department's diversity problems.

Private lawyers who have sued federal agencies for racial discrimination expressed dismay at the heavy editing of the report and at its conclusions that discrimination was perceived by the minority lawyers who make up about 15 percent of the Justice Department's 9,200 lawyers.

"The Justice Department has sought to hide from the public statistically significant findings of discrimination against minorities within its ranks," said David J. Shaffer, a lawyer who has represented agents from federal agencies in class-action discrimination lawsuits. "These cases challenge the same type of discriminatory practices found to exist at the Justice Department."

After the unedited document began circulating in computer circles, and articles began appearing earlier this month in publications like Computer World and newspapers like Newsday, the Justice Department pulled the edited report from its Web site, later posting a different version thought to be more resistant to electronic manipulation.

The complaints about the Justice Department come as it has shifted many resources to fighting terrorism and critics have said it has allowed the enforcement of civil rights to languish and failed to aggressively pursue some accusations of discrimination in housing, the workplace and other critical areas.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, said the department's handling of the report called into question its commitment to diversity in its own workplace.

At a Senate hearing this week, Mr. Kennedy told James B. Comey, nominated by President Bush to succeed Larry Thompson as deputy attorney general, that the episode "gives the distinct impression that the department commissioned the report, then left it on the shelf, ignoring the recommendations."

Mr. Comey, however, said the report and the policy that grew out of it were "a point of pride" for the Justice Department.

Mark Corallo, a Justice Department spokesman, said that portions of the report, and even its conclusions, were "deliberative and predecisional" and so could be excluded from the public report under provisions in the Freedom of Information Act. Mr. Corallo said some of the consultants' findings were inaccurate, but he said he could not discuss deleted passages.

Mr. Corallo said career lawyers who routinely decide how to censor material before public release made the recommendations about what to delete from the diversity report. He said their recommendations were sent to the office of the deputy attorney general, where it was reviewed by political appointees who made no further changes.

By the time the department posted the theoretically more secure version of the report on its Web site, it was too late. Russ Kick, a writer and editor in Tucson, who operates a Web site, thememoryhole.org, had had already electronically stripped the edited version of the black lines that hid the full text. Mr. Kick then posted the unedited version of the report on his Web site, where it has been copied more than 32,000 times, a near record for the site. Justice Department officials said it was unlikely that any action would be taken against Mr. Kick.

Some Justice Department lawyers said the editing of the report had overshadowed the purpose of the study. Stacey Plaskett Duffy, a senior counsel to the deputy attorney general, said the study, a self-evaluation, was part of a program to improve the department's diversity programs.

"This was a study that we commissioned of our own volition to get a look at what our work force looked like," Ms. Duffy said. "We didn't have to let people know we were doing this."

She said the department had undertaken a number of significant steps to improve the work environment for minority members. Department officials have begun a pilot $300,000 program to help new lawyers pay off student loans, she said, and have also started a mentoring program, begun posting all job openings and are assessing how to more fairly assign cases within each unit.

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