Three prominent Washington lawyers have tangled for months in a partisan drama involving two relatively obscure federal government agencies. 

That drama involves one of Barack Obama’s Justice Department nominees, who proved too controversial for some Senate Democrats. Now in another post, that Obama appointee targeted two allies of Donald Trump, both lawyers who advocate secure and clean elections.

The battlegrounds for this political brawl are the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and the Election Assistance Commission, but it almost escalated into a Justice Department probe. 

Here are some details of the partisan clash:

Democrat Debo Adegbile, whom Obama appointed to the Commission on Civil Rights in 2016, unsuccessfully pushed the Justice Department investigation of Republican member J. Christian Adams, appointed by Trump in 2020, according to emails and memos obtained by The Daily Signal. 

The most recent installment of the Adegbile-Adams rivalry occurred in August, when the Commission on Civil Rights voted to appoint election lawyer Cleta Mitchell to the board of advisers for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. 

The dispute, however, appears to go back further.

Mitchell is chairwoman of the board of directors for the Public Interest Legal Foundation, an election watchdog group headed by Adams, its president. (Also on that board is Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at The Heritage Foundation, parent organization of The Daily Signal.)  

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 has been involved in some high-profile election cases on the side of Republicans, including for Trump in the litigation that followed 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. 

In his failed push for a Justice Department investigation of Adams, Adegbile alleged a conflict of interest. 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 Commission on Civil Rights, created by the 1957 version of the Civil Rights Act, is tasked with investigating, reporting, and making recommendations on civil rights matters. The president appoints four members, the president pro tem of the Senate appoints two, and the House speaker appoints two. 

The commission had a 6-2 Democrat majority 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.

Obama Appointee vs. Trump Appointee

Adegbile, now a partner at the New York law firm of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, previously was director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

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

Adegbile also is a former Democrat staffer on the 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 issued several reports on states and localities with more names on voter registration lists than there were residents eligible to vote, as well as jurisdictions that illegally included noncitizens and the names of dead 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. 

In 2020, Trump appointed Adams to the Commission on Civil Rights after having appointed him in 2017 to the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. 

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 quoted Adams, a vocal opponent of the Adegbile nomination, as 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 defeated the Adegbile nomination in a bipartisan vote in March 2014. Eight Democrats—including then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada—joined Republicans in the 52-47 vote opposing the nomination.

Two years later, Obama appointed Adegbile as a member of the Commission on Civil Rights. 

Mitchell’s Appointment 

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

The Election Assistance Commission was created under the 2002 Help America Vote Act, under which the Commission on Civil Rights appoints some members to the 35-member EAC advisory board. 

From 1976 to 1984, Mitchell was a Democrat serving in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. In 1981, she also was a fellow at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics. In 1996, she registered as a Republican and served on the boards of the Republican National Lawyers Association, the American Conservative Union, and the 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 shows Mitchell as 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.”

Object and Investigate

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. 

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

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 put forward either Mitchell or Adams for Democrat commissioners to choose between, 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.

In short, Ms. Mitchell serves as chair of the board on which Commissioner Adams serves, she chairs the board of an organization that employs Commissioner Adams as general counsel and president, and Ms. Mitchell participates in approving 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. If it is determined that a violation occurred or that this matter is more appropriately investigated by a separate independent third party, a referral to [the] Office of Inspector General of the Department of Justice may be appropriate.

End of the Matter?

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 sent a Feb. 4 memo to commission members, which The Daily Signal obtained separately from its request under the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. Their memo says:

In conclusion, [the commission’s Office of General Counsel] took a number of actions based on the November 19, 2021, business meeting and subsequent email, including reviewing thousands of emails in connection with media FOIA requests related to this matter, providing ethics advice and counseling to Commissioner Adams and his SA [special assistant], referring the matter to [the Office of Government Ethics’] General Counsel, and conducting its own legal analysis … to determine if referral to an independent inspector general … was warranted. 

It is our opinion that no such referral is warranted in this matter or that other remedy or further action is necessary. 

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

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