Unedited internal report faults Justice Dept. on diversity issues

More than half of study censored when agency posted document on Web

October 31, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - 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 censored passages - which were electronically recovered by a self-described "information archaeologist" in Tucson, Ariz. - 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 last year 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 workplace as biased and unfair.

Among the censored findings: "The department does face significant diversity issues. 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 portion said that efforts to promote diversity "will take extraordinarily strong leadership" from the attorney general's office and other Justice Department offices.

Moreover, even complimentary conclusions were deleted, such as 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." Also, a passage saying the department should "increase public visibility of diversity issues" was kept out of the public report.

Private lawyers who have sued government agencies for racial discrimination - agencies that the Justice Department represents, such as the FBI, the Customs and Border Protection Bureau and the Secret Service - expressed dismay at the heavy editing of the report and the conclusions it revealed: Discrimination was perceived by the minority lawyers who make up about 15 percent of the Justice Department's 9,200 attorneys.

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

The complaints come as the Justice Department has shifted many of its resources to fighting terrorism, and critics have said the department has allowed enforcement of civil rights to languish and has failed to aggressively pursue some claims of discrimination.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat and one of the Justice Department's main critics on the issue, said the department's handling of the report called into question its commitment to diversity.

At a Senate hearing this week, Kennedy told James Comey, who was 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."

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 pre-decisional," and therefore could be excluded from the report released to the public under provisions in the Freedom of Information Act. He said some of the consultant's findings were inaccurate, but he said he could not discuss deleted passages.

Corallo said career lawyers who routinely decide how to censor material before its 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 they were reviewed by political appointees who made no further changes.

After the unedited document began circulating in computer circles and after articles began appearing in publications such as Computer World and Newsday, the Justice Department pulled the edited report from its Web site and posted a different version thought to be more resistant to electronic manipulation.

But by then it was too late. Russ Kick, a writer and editor in Tucson who operates the Web site www.thememoryhole.org, had used specialized software to highlight and delete the redacted portions. "The black bar would disappear, and the original text was there," he said.

The unedited version of the report has been copied more than 32,000 times, a near record for the site, Kick said. Justice Department officials said it was unlikely that any action would be taken against Kick.

Some lawyers at the Justice Department said the censorship of the report had overshadowed the real purpose of the study.

"This was a [self-evaluation] study that we commissioned of our own volition," said Stacey Plaskett Duffy, a senior counsel to the deputy attorney general. "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 minorities.

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