Obama Appointee Targets Trump Appointee on Civil Rights Commission

Three prominent Washington lawyers have been involved in a partisan drama that has spanned months and involved two federal agencies. 

That drama involves one of Barack Obama’s Justice Department nominees, who proved too controversial for some Senate Democrats. In another post, the Obama appointee also targeted two Trump allies, both lawyers who support clean and secure elections.

This political brawl was fought over by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) and the Election Assistance Commission (ECC), but it almost escalated to a Justice Department probe. 

Here are some details on the partisan conflict:

Democrat Debo Adegbile, who Obama appointed to the Commission on Civil Rights, in 2016, failed to push the Justice Department investigation of Republican member J. Christian Adams. Trump was appointed in 2020. emailsThe Daily Signal also has memos. 

The most recent Adegbile/Adams conflict occurred in August when the Commission on Civil Rights voted for Cleta Mitchell to be appointed to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s board of advisers. 

However, the dispute seems to go back further.

Mitchell is chairwoman on the board of directors of the Public Interest Legal Foundation. Adams, the organization’s president, heads the election watchdog group. Hans von Spakovsky (a senior legal associate at The Heritage Foundation, parent organisation of The Daily Signal) is also on the board.  

Adegbile complained that Adams “appears to have financial and business relationships with Ms. Mitchell, through PILF, which as far as I am aware he failed to disclose.”

Adegbile argued that Mitchell, as a board member for the Public Interest Legal Foundation, would have a say in Adams’ leadership and compensation. 

‘No Referral Warranted’

Mitchell was involved in several high-profile cases related to election law, including the case for Trump in the litigation following the 2020 presidential election. 

Adegbile voted for Mitchell’s appointment to the post advising the Election Assistance Commission, although he later seemed to make a procedural excuse for doing so. In a November email, an assistant wrote that Adegbile “also understood that we could only strike” one Republican nominee from consideration. 

Adegbile made a failed push for a Justice Department investigation into Adams. He claimed a conflict of interests. The Commission on Civil Rights’ Office of General Counsel, however, responded in a Feb. 4 memo that “no such referral is warranted in this matter.”

The 1957 Civil Rights Act created the Commission on Civil Rights. It is charged with investigating, reporting and making recommendations on civil right matters. The president appoints 4 members, while the president pro tem (Senate) appoints 2. The House speaker appoints 2. 

The majority of the 6-2 Democrat voters in the commission voted in favor of the commission. until 2020, when Trump appointed two members—Adams and Stephen Gilchrist—and evened representation to a 4-4 split on the panel. 

Adegbile’s move against Adams was a reaction to the Commission on Civil Rights finally being a bipartisan panel, Adams said. 

“There is intense animosity over the fact that the commission is now 4-4 Democrat and Republican,” Adams told The Daily Signal on Monday. “Also, there is total Trump Derangement Syndrome as it relates to Cleta [Mitchell].”

Adegbile and Mitchell did not respond to The Daily Signal’s inquiries Thursday and Friday for this report.

Trump Appointee Vs. Obama Appointee

Adegbile is now a partnerWilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr is a New York law firm.

The NAACP entity frequently has opposed voter ID and other election security measures advocated by Adams’ group, the Public Interest Legal Foundation.  

Adegbile is also a former Democrat stafferThe Senate Judiciary Committee. 

Adams, a lawyer in the Justice Department’s voting section from 2005 to 2010, founded the Public Interest Legal Foundation in 2012. The foundation has published several reports on states that have more voters than residents, as well as jurisdictions that illegally include noncitizens or the names of deceased voters on the rolls. 

Adams is the author of the 2011 book “Injustice,” which was critical of the Justice Department under then-Attorney General Eric Holder. 

Trump appointed Adams to his Commission on Civil Rights in 2020 after he had appointed him to the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity in 2017. 

Opposition emerged in 2013 when Obama nominated Adegbile to run the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, because Adegbile was a lawyer in an appeal filed on behalf of cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal, convicted of the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. 

The Washington Post cited Adams, who was a vocal opponent to the Adegbile nominating committee, as follows: saying: “When he ran the unit at the Legal Defense Fund, they took positions far outside of the mainstream of the law, far outside existing jurisprudence as it relates to race, and really advanced a fringe agenda. If he attempts to do the same at the Justice Department, it will be a catastrophe.”

The Democrat-controlled Senate defeatedThe Adegbile nomination was approved in a bipartisan vote on March 2014. Eight Democrats—including then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada—joined Republicans in the 52-47 vote opposing the nomination.

Obama appointed Adegbile two years later to the Commission on Civil Rights. 

Mitchell’s Appointment 

Adams nominated Mitchell and voted to allow her to serve on the advisory panel for the Election Assistance Commission. Mitchell is also the chairwoman for the board of directors of the Public Interest Legal Foundation. 

The 2002 Help America Vote Act established the Election Assistance Commission. Under this Act, the Commission on Civil Rights appoints certain members to the 35-member EAC advisory committee. 

Mitchell was a Democrat who served in the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1976 to 1984. In 1981, she also was a fellow at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics. In 1996, she became a Republican and served on boards of the Republican National Lawyers Association (American Conservative Union), and the National Rifle Association (National Rifle Association). 

Republicans on the commission nominated Mitchell and the full commission voted to appoint her to the Election Assistance Commission’s advisory board. Mitchell’s appointment stirred controversy on the left, in part because she assisted Trump’s legal team in the litigation that followed the disputed 2020 presidential election. 

Whatever the early concerns from the left, Mitchell’s board membership with the Public Interest Legal Foundation hardly seemed a secret. 

The foundation’s website clearly lists Adams as founder and president and prominently showsMitchell is the board chairwoman. Mitchell and Adams also are named on the foundation’s Wikipedia page and elsewhere.

“It’s on the bloody website that she is on the board,” Adams told The Daily Signal. “It’s also in public reporting. This complaint was just a ruse to threaten.”

Investigate and Object

Adegbile voted for Mitchell’s appointment to the EAC post earlier in 2021, but in an email exchange in November—days before making the complaint about Adams and Mitchell—he expressed buyer’s remorse. 

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, The Daily Signal obtained communications from the Commission on Civil Rights. 

Irena Vidulovic, Adegbile’s special assistant on the commission, sent an informal message Nov. 17 to commission Staff Director Mauro Morales, apparently to explain Adegbile’s vote for Mitchell. 

Vidulovic’s message said the vote on Mitchell’s appointment was “bundled” with another commission vote, according to the documents obtained by The Daily Signal. She added that Adegbile “also understood that we could only strike one R [Republican] nominee.”

Republicans on the commission voted to have Adams or Mitchell as Democrat commissioners. CNN reported

Adegbile himself wrote Morales and commission General Counsel David Ganz on Nov. 23, asserting that he had raised the issue of Adams’ potential conflict of interest at a meeting four days earlier:

I raised, on the record, the point that Commissioner Adams appears to have financial and business relationships with Ms. Mitchell, through PILF, which as far as I am aware he failed to disclose to the general counsel’s office prior to the nomination and vote on Ms. Mitchell’s appointment.

Ms. Mitchell is the chair of the board that Commissioner Adams serves on, she chairs the board of an organisation that employs Commissioner Adams, general counsel, and president, and she participates in the approval of his compensation. The failure to disclose these facts if true raise serious questions as to the propriety and validity of Commissioner Adams’ participation in matters regarding Ms. Mitchell. Referrals will be made to Adams if it is determined that there was a violation or that the matter is better investigated by an independent third party. [the]The Department of Justice could have an Office of Inspector General.

Is that it?

In response, the Commission on Civil Rights appointed its “designated agency ethics official” to “take all appropriate actions related to the appointment of Ms. Mitchell to the EAC’s Board of Advisors.”

After the review, Morales and Ganz received a Feb. 4 memo to commission membersThe Daily Signal received the following information separately from its Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Their memo reads:

Let’s conclude. [the commission’s Office of General Counsel]A number of actions were taken in response to the November 19, 2021 business meeting and subsequent email. This included reviewing thousands upon emails in connection to media FOIA requests. Also, Commissioner Adams received ethics advice and counseling. [special assistant]Referring to the matter [the Office of Government Ethics’] General Counsel, and conducting its own legal analysis … to determine if referral to an independent inspector general … was warranted. 

According to our opinion, no referral is warranted in the present matter. 

With that, Adegbile’s complaint against Adams and Mitchell apparently hit a dead end.

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