Trump DHS Civil Rights Appointee’s Qualifications Questioned (Corrected)

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By Hassan A. Kanu and Jacquie Lee

President Donald Trump’s pick to head a Homeland Security Department’s equal employment opportunity and civil rights office has been accused of voter suppression and dishonesty in the past, making some observers wary of her qualifications for the job.

Trump recently announced that he intends to appoint Cameron Quinn to take over as officer of civil rights and civil liberties at the DHS. Quinn was the chief election official for Fairfax County, Va., from 2011 to 2015. The local Democratic Party sued her and others in 2012, alleging election workers were instructed to prohibit poll watchers from speaking to voters at polling locations. That and a related incident of alleged perjury could potentially cast a shadow over her appointment, which doesn’t require Senate confirmation.

The lawsuit named Quinn, a Virginia attorney, individually and in her official capacity as general registrar. The Fairfax County Democratic Committee said Quinn instructed poll watchers not to answer voters’ questions about the voting process and their rights.

The case was ultimately settled.

“Everything she wanted the electoral board to support was constrictive of voting rights,” John Farrell, the Virginia attorney who filed the lawsuit, told Bloomberg BNA. “It’s a concern for me when I heard she was up for the position.”

The DHS office oversees civil rights complaints from employees of the department, one of the government’s largest agencies. Quinn has been a special assistant in the civil rights office at the Department of Agriculture since January. She worked on voting matters at the Department of Justice before that.

“Ms. Quinn is highly qualified for the position for which she has been announced and the allegations against her are without merit,” DHS spokesman David Lapan told Bloomberg BNA. A White House spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to Bloomberg BNA’s request for comment. Quinn didn’t answer several phone calls and an e-mail request for comment.

The county registrar who succeeded Quinn, Cameron Sasnett, said he’s always found her to be “incredibly knowledgeable and competent in the scope of work she’s done in elections.”

“Whatever her resume credentials might be to support her going to” an EEO office “I can’t speak to that,” Sasnett told Bloomberg BNA.

Office Comes With Broad Scope of Responsibility

The DHS office also handles civil rights complaints from the public regarding department employees. That responsibility is likely to prove particularly consequential as the administration’s positions on race, immigration, and policing continue to get close scrutiny. The Transportation Security Administration, many agencies involved in immigration law and enforcement, and even the Federal Emergency Management Agency are under the purview of the DHS.

Steven Reaves, the president of AFGE Local 4060, a union representing FEMA workers, learned of Quinn’s appointment during a phone conversation with Bloomberg BNA.

“Federal employees are under increased attack regarding their civil liberties, and AFGE believes wholeheartedly in those civil rights and liberties,” Reaves said. “We look forward to working with Ms. Quinn to enforce these powerful and fundamental rights as they apply to those employees on the front lines of homeland security.”

A number of observers, including some who’ve known and worked closely with Quinn in the past and spoke on the condition of anonymity, told Bloomberg BNA that they’re concerned Quinn lacks civil rights experience and isn’t qualified for the position. Some noted that she stepped down from the registrar’s office amid controversy, and was ordered to take management training because of complaints from her staff.

“While Ms. Quinn appears to have some relevant experience for her new position, her smooth transition from campaign staff to political appointee in Agriculture to a completely unrelated position in Homeland Security suggests her primary competence may not be civil rights,” a spokesperson for the government watchdog group American Oversight, told Bloomberg BNA.

The group said it requested Quinn’s records after she was appointed to Trump’s beachhead team at the Agriculture Department “because early indications raised concerns that the president prioritized loyalty over qualifications, including for positions with critical responsibilities for protecting consumers and at-risk communities.”

The White House’s announcement and Quinn’s publicly available professional profiles, including her LinkedIn page, list the Agriculture Department job, which she has held since January, as her only previous position dealing directly with civil rights outside voting matters. Another profile describes her as an “expert on US election law,” and she’s taught courses in election law for years the George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia law school.

Quinn also described her professional experience during the lawsuit brought against her in 2012, saying “almost all of which has been involved in election administration.”

Others who have also worked closely with Quinn told Bloomberg BNA that she’s competent to hold the office.

“I’m confident she’d fill in any knowledge gaps she has and do a good job if she takes the office,” Stephen Hunt, chairman of the Fairfax County Electoral Board, said.

“She really does care a great deal about people, which I think is a key aspect of that position,” Brian Schoeneman, the former secretary of the Fairfax County Electoral Board, said. “I think it’s a good fit,” Schoeneman said about Quinn taking over the DHS position. “I don’t think the management issues will follow her to that gig. And she is all about doing things by the books ensuring people’s rights are protected.”

Criticized by Judge

The general registrar is appointed by the Fairfax County Electoral Board and is responsible for the county elections office’s day-to-day operations, voter registration, and elections administration. Fairfax County has about 700,000 registered voters. The district is significant in both state and national elections because of its location in an area that has shifted to voting for Democrats in the last three presidential elections, after voting for the Republican candidates in the seven previous ones.

Poll watchers are volunteers who inform voters about their rights at polling locations. The 2012 lawsuit accused Quinn of interfering with the Fairfax poll watchers’ work.

At a hearing, Quinn repeatedly denied giving improper instructions to the election officers who oversaw the poll watchers, according to Farrell and transcripts obtained by Bloomberg BNA. The chief training instructor later sent Farrell copies of documents showing that Quinn’s training materials restricted the poll watchers’ conduct.

The instructor also told Farrell she spoke directly with Quinn about her opposition to the training material, but Quinn did nothing. Farrell filed a new offer of proof days after Quinn’s initial testimony.

“She was an attorney and she got on the stand and did not tell the truth to the judge,” he told Bloomberg BNA.

Judge Dennis Smith also suggested Quinn hadn’t been truthful and implied that a perjury investigation may be appropriate.

“They are saying Ms. Quinn and Ms. Flagg were not being truthful,” Smith said, according to the transcript. “We have copies of this overhead” containing details of the poll watcher training materials that suggested “they were not truthful on the stand.”

Farrell said he referred the matter to the county attorney’s office but it wasn’t pursued further. Other observers noted that because the county attorney’s office dropped the issue, it shouldn’t weigh on her fitness for the DHS office.

“I know Cameron Quinn both by reputation and personally, and have for a number of years,” William Hurd, a partner at Troutman Sanders and previous solicitor general of Virginia, said. “She is a person of unquestioned integrity, and highly competent.”

Management Skills in Question?

An investigation into elections staff complaints led to an order for Quinn to take management courses.

“There were generally were some concerns about her style and the way that she approached managing people,” Sasnett, Quinn’s successor in office, said. “I’ve known her for a while and I’ve always found her very competent” in other areas “but from what I understood, upon evaluation, she was maybe not the best people manager, and that’s been widely reported.”

Schoeneman, the former election board secretary, said hostile staff was the reason Quinn had so much trouble as a manager.

“That made it very difficult for her to be an effective manager when she didn’t have the resources, and the folks on the staff were actively trying to circumvent what she was doing because they didn’t agree with it,” Schoeneman said.

All of the interviewees who were knowledgeable about the allegations of bad management acknowledged that the office is a challenging one that has cycled through several registrars besides Quinn over the last decade.

“People have strengths and weaknesses, and managing an office that large would be a challenge for anyone,” Hunt said. “We felt that it exceeded her managerial skills to the point where we thought it would be beneficial for her to get some management training and support.”

(This story is updated to correct two things: The office to which John Farrell referred his concerns about potential perjury is the Office of the County Attorney. Also, the second name that appeared in a court transcript is “Ms. Flagg.")

To contact the reporters on this story: Hassan A. Kanu at hkanu@bna.com; Jacquie Lee at jlee1@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Chris Opfer at copfer@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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