The Justice Department is declining to prosecute former Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross for misrepresentations he made to Congress about the origins of the Trump administration’s failed push to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
The decision not to prosecute Ross was revealed in letter made public Monday from Commerce Department Inspector General Peggy Gustafson to Democratic lawmakers.
Democrats had requested that Gustafson investigate Ross for how he characterized the genesis of the citizenship question in his March 2018 congressional testimony. At the time, he said the administration was seeking to add the question to the decennial survey solely because of a DOJ request for the data, ostensibly to bolster Voting Rights Act enforcement.
Internal records and other evidence surfaced in the litigation around the question — as well as in a House Oversight Committee investigation — showed that members of the Trump administration, including Ross, were plotting to add the question well before the DOJ formally submitted its request in December 2017.
Civil rights activists and outside census experts feared that the question’s presence on the census would discourage immigrants from participating in the survey, risking an undercount that would have significant implications for the government funding and political power doled out to those communities.
The Supreme Court ultimately blocked the addition of the question and said that the Voting Rights Act enforcement rationale put forward by Ross was “contrived.”
In her investigation, Gustafson found that Ross “misrepresented the full rationale” for adding the question when he testified in Congress, first in front of the House Appropriations Committee on March 20, 2018, and then again on March 22, 2018, in front of the House Ways and Means Committee.
“During Congressional testimony, the then-Secretary stated his decision to reinstate the citizenship question was based solely on a DOJ request,” Gustafson wrote, referring to the late 2017 request. “However, evidence shows there were significant communications related to the citizenship question among the then-Secretary, his staff, and other government officials between March 2017 and September 2017, which was well before the DOJ request memorandum. Evidence also suggests the Department requested and played a part in drafting the DOJ memorandum.”
She noted that Ross in June 2018 sent a memo to the department clarifying his role in the deliberations around the question. That memo was sent after documents released in the legal case around the question had undermined his congressional testimony.
“This investigation was presented to and declined for prosecution by the Public Integrity Section of the DOJ’s Criminal Division,” Gustafson’s letter said.
The Justice Department declined to comment.
The letter was sent to the Democrats along with a report on the investigation that was not released publicly.
In a statement, House Oversight Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat who requested the investigation, vowed that her committee will continue to investigate the “Trump administration’s political interference with the census.”
“Lying to Congress is unacceptable, and the IG did the right thing by referring Secretary Ross’s conduct to the Justice Department,” she said, though her statement did not address DOJ’s refusal to prosecute Ross.
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