Raleigh lawyer Thomas Farr, a nominee for a federal judgeship, knew well in advance about a controversial 1990 postcard campaign designed by Republicans to intimidate blacks who wanted to vote, according to a former Department of Justice investigator.
The statements made this week by Gerald Hebert, a federal attorney in 1990, directly contradict Farr’s sworn testimony in September before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee that he only heard about it after a Justice Department letter responding to the plan.
Farr did not respond to requests for comment from the INDY Tuesday and Wednesday. Farr’s nomination was approved by the Judiciary Committee last month. He must still be confirmed by the full Senate.
Hebert told the INDY Wednesday that he learned about the role Farr played planning the postcards when responding to complaints to the Justice Department about the 1990 senatorial campaign of the late North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms.
A meeting planning “ballot security” efforts—including the intimidating postcards—included Farr and took place in mid-October before the November election between Helms, who won, and then-Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, Hebert says, referring to contemporaneous handwritten notes.
“We talked to Farr, and he confirmed a lot of what we’d heard,” Hebert told the INDY Wednesday. “I don’t think he can really claim that the first he heard of it from a Justice Department letter.”
Yet that’s exactly what he did.
The Justice Department eventually charged the state Republican Party and the Helms campaign, for which Farr was lead counsel, with violating African-American voters’ rights by sending more than one hundred thousand postcards, mostly to black neighborhoods, suggesting that recipients were ineligible to vote and could be prosecuted if they tried.
“He was certainly involved in the scheme as it was being developed,” Hebert told this reporter for a 2009 News & Observer story.
The story by this reporter, “Attorney involved in Helms-era postcards,” appeared on the front page of the N&O on December 21, 2009. The next day, Farr told the newspaper that his involvement came only after the Justice Department complaint was filed. Farr did not ask the newspaper for a correction to the original story.
Hebert confirmed and expanded on that account during a telephone interview Wednesday.
President Trump nominated Farr, a shareholder in the Raleigh office of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, in July for a post on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.
Ahead of a hearing before the Judiciary Committee, Senator Diane Feinstein, a California Democrat, asked Farr about the postcards in a written questionnaire.
“While you were serving as lead counsel to the 1990 Helms for Senate Committee, the Justice Department filed a complaint in federal court charging the campaign with intimidating black voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” Feinstein said, according to a transcript. “The complaint alleged that the campaign sent over 100,000 postcards to mainly African-American voters suggesting that they were ineligible to vote and that voting could lead to criminal prosecution for voter fraud. Did you provide any counsel, or were you consulted in any way, about the content of or the decision to send these postcards?”
“No,” Farr replied.
“What actions, if any, did you take to prevent the campaign from sending these postcards?” Feinstein continued.
“I was not aware that the cards had been sent until they had been sent and the manager of the Helms Committee received a letter about the cards from the Voting Rights Section of the United States Department of Justice,” Farr replied. “The manager of the Helms Committee then called me for legal advice.”
Farr also denied any role in drafting or sending the cards or taking part in meetings in which the postcards were discussed before they were sent.
That account is contradicted by Herbert, the former DOJ investigator.
The 1992 federal complaint against state Republicans, the Helms campaign, political operative Ed Locke, and others contains the following passage: “On or about October 16 and 17, 1990, Defendant Locke attended series of meetings at [which] the 1990 ballot security program was discussed. Among those attending such meetings [were] Defendant [Doug] Davidson, Mr. Peter Moore, the campaign manager of the Defendant Helms for Senate Committee, Mr. Mark Stephens, President of Defendant Jefferson Marketing, Inc., and an attorney who had been involved in past ballot security efforts on behalf of Senator Helms and/or the Defendant North Carolina Republican Party.”
On Wednesday, Hebert told the INDY that the unnamed attorney “was Farr.”
In 1992, GOP political consultant Carter Wrenn told The New York Times that the Helms campaign only signed a consent decree to settle the DOJ complaint to avoid litigation costs.
On Tuesday, Wrenn told the INDY that he should have stopped the postcards. “It was my screwup,” he said.
Asked why a career Justice Department official would provide incorrect information about Farr’s involvement, Wrenn replied, “You got me.”
The Justice Department complaint was settled when the Helms campaign and other defendants accepted an agreement prohibiting the campaign from taking part in any “ballot security efforts” or any other means of intimidating African-American voters.
Civil rights groups have raised concerns about Farr’s nomination because of his record in voting rights cases and because two African-American women—Jennifer May-Parker and Patricia Timmons-Goodson—were nominated for the post by President Obama but did not get hearings in the Republican-controlled Senate, despite the fact that that seat was the longest vacant position ever in the federal judiciary. Both women were blocked by Senator Richard Burr.
He and Senator Thom Tillis, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, are supporting Farr for the post.
“I am pleased to see Thomas Farr’s nomination move one step closer to confirmation, and I look forward to his swift approval by the full Senate in order to fill this important vacancy,” Burr said when Farr’s nomination was advanced by the Judiciary Committee. “Tom will undoubtedly serve the people of North Carolina well for many years to come.”
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus wrote to Judiciary Committee chairman Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, and Feinstein in opposition to the nomination in September.
“The Congressional Black Caucus believes that Mr. Farr’s elevation to a lifetime seat on the federal bench would be a grave disservice to millions of North Carolinians who rely on the courts to uphold critical legal rights and protections,” wrote CBC members including North Carolina U.S. Representative G.K. Butterfield and Representative John Conyers of Michigan.
Nan Aron, the president of the Alliance for Justice, an association of public interest and civil rights organizations formed in 1979, says Hebert’s account of Farr’s early involvement makes sense given what she called Farr’s long record of voter suppression efforts.
“There’s certainly a clear discrepancy between what Mr. Farr testified to under oath to the committee and what has and will be reported about his activities with Helms regarding voter suppression,” Aron says. “A key qualification for a judge is impeccable honesty. This raises a whole slew of questions.”
Additional reporting by Erica Hellerstein.