Justice Department Steers Money to Favored Groups

Byron York, Washington Examiner, August 5, 2010

The Justice Department has found a new way to pursue civil rights lawsuits, using the powers of the Civil Rights Division not just to win compensation for victims of alleged discrimination but also to direct large sums of money to activist groups that are not discrimination victims and not connected to a particular suit.

In the past, when the Civil Rights Division filed suit against, say, a bank or a landlord, alleging discrimination in lending or rentals, the cases were often settled by the defendant paying a fine to the U.S. Treasury and agreeing to put aside a sum of money to compensate the alleged discrimination victims. There was then a search for those victims–people who were actually denied a loan or an apartment–who stood to be compensated. After everyone who could be found was paid, there was often money left over. That money was returned to the defendant.

Now, Attorney General Eric Holder and Civil Rights Division chief Thomas Perez have a new plan. Any unspent money will not go back to the defendant but will instead go to a “qualified organization” approved by the Justice Department. And if there is not enough unspent money–that will be determined by the Department–then the defendant might be required to come up with more money to give to the “qualified organization.”

The arrangement was used in a recently-settled case, United States v. AIG Federal Savings Bank and Wilmington Finance. The Justice Department alleged that AIG violated the Fair Housing Act and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act by allowing third-party wholesale mortgage brokers to “charge African-American borrowers higher direct broker fees for residential real estate-related loans than white borrowers.” The financial institution denied any wrongdoing, and there was no factual finding of wrongdoing. Nevertheless, under the terms of a March 19, 2010 consent decree, AIG agreed to pay $6.1 million to “aggrieved persons who may have suffered as a result of the alleged violations.”

That is standard procedure in such cases. But then AIG also agreed, in the words of the consent decree, to “provide a minimum of $1,000,000 to qualified organization(s) to provide credit counseling, financial literacy, and other related educational programs targeted at African-American borrowers.” {snip}

The consent decree directs AIG to consult with the Justice Department on which “qualified organizations” could receive money, and it gives the Department the right to approve where the money will go. In any event, the money will go to groups who have no direct connection to the lawsuit and its allegations of discrimination.

Xochitl Hinojosa, a Justice Department spokeswoman, says no money has yet been given to organizations under the AIG agreement. But she adds that the funds, and those from other cases, will “go to ‘qualified organizations’ that have a mission that addresses whatever the harm is that was the subject of the litigation.”

The Department followed a similar procedure in another case, United States v. Sterling [2009]. {snip}

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Hinojosa says that in the Sterling case, $40,000 will be split between the victim fund administrator and a group called the Southern California Housing Rights Center. According to the Center’s website, its goal is to promote “freedom of residence” through the use of “education, advocacy and litigation.” Thus, money used to settle a lawsuit over alleged discrimination might well go to fund yet another lawsuit over alleged discrimination.

{snip}

Republicans are particularly concerned that the “qualified organizations” money might end up with groups that are associated with the community organizing group formerly known as ACORN. Republican lawmakers want to avoid sending federal money to groups that Congress has deemed unsuitable to receive it.

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