President Donald Trump’s commerce secretary misled Congress about why he sought to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, according to an investigation from the Office of Inspector General, but Trump's Justice Department decided not to prosecute.
The watchdog agency's probe showed that Wilbur Ross misrepresented the reason for adding a citizenship question to the census questionnaire during two appearances before House committees in March 2018, according to a letter sent last week to congressional leaders by Inspector General Peggy Gustafson.
It is a federal crime to make false statements before Congress. The results of the inspector general's investigation were presented to the Justice Department during Trump's administration, but department attorneys declined prosecution in January 2020.
The Department of Justice on Monday declined to comment. No one answered the phone Monday at a Palm Beach, Florida number listed for Ross nor responded to an emailed inquiry.
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The Supreme Court eventually blocked adding the query ahead of the 2020 census, but critics say that by pursuing the citizenship question, the Trump administration sought to suppress participation by noncitizens and minorities in the nation's once-a-decade head count.
According to critics, the citizenship question was inspired by the late Republican redistricting expert Tom Hofeller, who had previously written that using citizen voting-age population instead of the total population for the purpose of redrawing of congressional and legislative districts could be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.
The inspector general probe was launched in 2019 at the request of Democratic congressional leaders who said they were concerned that the Trump administration had hidden the role of the Republican redistricting expert while trying to add a citizenship question to the census questionnaire. The Commerce Department oversees the Census Bureau, which compiles and crunches the numbers used to determine political power and the distribution of federal funds.
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The inspector general's report confirmed the conclusions of a congressional investigation about the Trump administration’s “illegal efforts" to add a citizenship question to the census, said U.S. Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, chairwoman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform.
“Lying to Congress is unacceptable, and the IG did the right thing by referring Secretary Ross’s conduct to the Justice Department," said Maloney, D-NY. “It is appalling that the Trump Administration subjected an undertaking as important as the decennial census to brazen political manipulation."
The inspector general investigation was unable to establish that Hofeller played a major role in the attempt to add the citizenship question to the census form, Gustafson's letter said.
During his congressional testimony, Ross testified that the Department of Justice requested adding the citizenship question to the census form in late 2017 for the purpose of enforcing federal voting rights law. But the inspector general probe said that “misrepresented the full rationale" since Wilbur's staff had been communicating with the Department of Justice many months before the request was made.
The evidence suggested that the Commerce Department requested and played a part in drafting the Department of Justice request, the inspector general probe found.
A memorandum Ross sent to Commerce Department officials said he had been considering adding the citizenship question soon after Trump appointed him to lead the department, according to the probe.
During the first meeting on Monday of a panel of experts studying the quality of the 2020 census data, Bob Bell, a statistical researcher at Google, said the impact of the efforts to add a citizenship question on the 2020 census form was something that would need to be evaluated. The panel of statisticians, historians and sociologists was convened by the Committee on National Statistics at the request of the Census Bureau.
Acting Census Bureau director Ron Jarmin told panel members that the pandemic, as well as “the challenging political environment" caused by fallout from the attempt to add a citizenship question, gave people good reasons to have concerns about data quality.
“There was an environment of intrigue around the census that previous censuses didn’t have," Jarmin said.
This story has been corrected to reflect that the decision not to prosecute Ross was made by the Department of Justice during the Trump administration, not the Biden administration.