Census Official: Sessions Used ‘Political Influence’ In Handling Of Citizenship Request

on February 2, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong/Getty Images North America

The top scientist at the Census Bureau testified Wednesday that then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions exerted “political influence” when he directed Justice Department staff not to meet with census experts about the Justice Department’s request to add a citizenship question to the census.

Census official John Abowd was being grilled about Sessions’ personal intervention — which was confirmed in a deposition by a top DOJ official — in the process that agencies usually go through in asking the Census Bureau to add questions to the decennial census.

ACLU attorney Dale Ho asked specifically if such a move was a consistent with a guidebook outlining principles and practices for federal statistical agencies, which says that a “federal statistical agency must be independent from political and other undue external influence in developing, producing, and disseminating statistics.”

“Many experts, including myself, would interpret that as political influence,” Abowd said.

Abowd’s testimony was in the ongoing federal trial in New York over Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s move to add a citizenship question to the census. The case is a consolidation of lawsuits brought by the ACLU and by a multi-state coalition. The lawsuits allege the move was unconstitutional, as well as a violation of the Administrative Procedure Act, which allows courts to strike down agency decisions found to be “arbitrary” or “capricious.”

Ross called Sessions personally in the fall of 2017 seeking that the Justice Department formally request a citizenship question, which it did in a December 2017 letter claiming that the data would aid Voting Rights Act enforcement.

Abowd and his team of experts analyzed the request and found that the Justice Department’s data needs would be better met if the Census Bureau pulled the citizenship data from existing administrative records. The Census Bureau concluded that adding the question would be costly and would result in less accurate data.

Abowd’s team sought to meet with Justice Department staff to discuss this assessment in early 2018. Sessions directed the Justice Department to cancel the meeting, John Gore, who then led the civil rights division, testified in deposition.

Abowd testified that he wasn’t aware at the time that Sessions had given that directive and said he wasn’t aware of another circumstance in which an attorney general directed his staff not to discuss with the Census Bureau a request for data.

Sessions was ousted from the Justice Department last week, after months that President Trump griped about his recusal from the Russia investigation. The Justice Department declined to comment on Abowd’s testimony.

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