Watchdog: Little help from Trump officials in census probe

National
Wilbur Ross

FILE – In this March 10, 2020, file photo, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross testifies before a House Appropriations subcommittee on Capitol Hill, in Washington. According to an investigation from the Office of Inspector General, during congressional testimony three years ago, the former U.S. Commerce Secretary gave a misleading reason for why he wanted a citizenship question on the 2020 census. An investigation by the watchdog agency showed that Ross misrepresented the reason for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census questionnaire during two appearances before House committees in March 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

A watchdog agency investigating the origins of a failed attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census form was unable to question top Trump administration officials because they either refused to cooperate or set unacceptable interview terms, according to a report released Tuesday.

Several former political appointees and Department of Justice officials ignored, declined or failed to respond to the Office of Inspector General’s interview requests.

The watchdog agency was unable to get in contact with former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Former Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and his deputy, Karen Dunn Kelly, requested that the department’s legal team be present for the interviews which the watchdog deemed inappropriate and rejected. Ross also questioned the watchdog agency’s legal authority to investigate the matter, according to the report released by the Department of Commerce’s Office of Inspector General.

“The office experienced certain challenges obtaining access to witnesses during this review,” the report said.

The report was released several days after the Office of Inspector General notified congressional leaders that its investigation had shown Ross misrepresented the reason for adding a citizenship question to the census questionnaire during two appearances before House committees in March 2018.

Ross testified that the Department of Justice requested adding the citizenship question to the census form in late 2017 for the purpose of enforcing federal voting rights law, but evidence suggested that the Commerce Department asked for and played a part in drafting the Department of Justice request, the inspector general probe found.

It is a federal crime to make false statements before Congress. The results of the inspector general’s investigation were presented to the Justice Department during Trump’s administration, but department attorneys declined prosecution in January 2020.

The Supreme Court eventually blocked adding the query ahead of the 2020 census, but critics say that by pursuing the citizenship question, the Trump administration sought to suppress participation by noncitizens and minorities in the nation’s once-a-decade head count.

According to critics, the citizenship question was inspired by the late Republican redistricting expert Tom Hofeller, who had previously written that using citizen voting-age population instead of the total population for the purpose of redrawing of congressional and legislative districts could be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic white people.

A spokeswoman for the Democratic-led House Committee on Oversight and Reform said in a statement Tuesday that the decision to decline prosecution by Department of Justice attorneys in Trump’s administration raised questions “about whether there was inappropriate political interference in the declination decision.”

“This is especially true because senior officials in the Justice Department under the previous Administration were implicated in the illegal effort to add the citizenship question to the 2020 Census,” said Emma Dulaney, the spokeswoman.

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