The Memphsis by Bill Dries - February 24, 2011
A new civil rights unit in the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee will build on a substantial record of official misconduct, civil rights conspiracy, hate crimes and similar cases the office has prosecuted for decades. “The business of civil rights remains the unfinished business of America,” Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas Perez said this month as he and U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton announced the prosecutors who will work in the unit. It is one of a dozen such dedicated units in the nation. Stanton and Perez, who heads the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, announced the formation of the unit this month in the courtyard of the National Civil Rights Museum. “Historically this district ... ranks at the top – in the top five – on an annual basis of prosecutions in civil rights matters,” Stanton said. “It makes sense to streamline those resources and to initiate and launch a dedicated unit to be even more effective and efficient.” Perez said he hopes the unit will remain beyond the Obama administration. “This is about sustainability. ... I want to make sure that we accomplish remarkable feats during our tenure,” he said. “But I want to make sure that when our tenure comes to an end that we have put into place a sustainable infrastructure so that the work will endure. ... That infrastructure is already robust.” Leading the unit will be veteran federal prosecutor Stephen C. Parker, whose caseload has recently included a human trafficking case as well as public corruption cases over the years. The unit will also capitalize on the recent run of federal police corruption cases. Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Coleman will head the part of the civil rights unit that continues to investigate those criminal cases. Jonathan Skrmetti, a Civil Rights Division attorney who came to Memphis to work with Parker on the largest of the police corruption cases involving former MPD officer Arthur Sease, among others, is now an assistant U.S. attorney with the Memphis office. Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. met with Perez a year ago this month in Washington during the U.S. Conference of Mayors and used some of the same imagery Perez used last week in Memphis.
“The American dream is turning into the American nightmare and Memphis is a poster child for that,” Wharton told Perez as the two talked specifically about the city’s federal civil lawsuit against Wells Fargo alleging predatory and discriminatory lending practices in minority neighborhoods in Shelby County. The Justice Department had indicated shortly before Wharton’s call on Perez that it would be involved in some of the reverse redlining lawsuits across the country. “It was my feeling that Memphis is a poster child for those lawsuits simply because of the stark difference between the foreclosure rate in loans made to black borrowers and white borrowers,” Wharton said in a cover story that same month in The Daily News’ sister publication, The Memphis News. Wharton didn’t say what Perez’s response or commitment was. The Memphis civil rights unit will include the pursuit of civil cases. “This is not an infusion of new capital coming in from Washington,” Perez said in Memphis this month. “This is a statement of leadership from your U.S. attorney – a statement that we will have a dedicated unit working not only on the critical cases in a criminal context ... but also making sure that we give meaning to our robust docket of cases in the civil context.” Among the general types of civil cases to be pursued, Perez highlighted “making sure we give meaning to the Fair Housing Act protections of equal opportunity to realize the American dream.”