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Suit said to lack 'legal merit'

Ex-litigator blames politics in voting case

A former senior litigator in the voting rights division of the US Department of Justice has called the department's lawsuit alleging widespread violations in recent Boston elections ''politically motivated" and ''largely without legal merit."

David J. Becker, who described himself as one of the department's most experienced litigators and enforcers of the Voting Rights Act, wrote in memos to city officials that the lawsuit accusing Boston of denying the rights of Hispanic and Asian-American voters with limited English skills was being brought in part because Boston voted Democratic in the 2004 presidential election.

A Department of Justice official declined to comment on the allegations, but pointed out that similar suits have been brought in Republican strongholds.

Becker made the declarations in a series of e-mails to Boston officials recommending that the city fight the suit and hire him to assist in the defense. He began corresponding with the city shortly before he left the department in April, when the voting rights division was preparing its lawsuit.

According to memos obtained by the Globe, the city declined his offer to work on the case, but Becker said he wished to help the city prevail anyway. He said in the memos that he was not directly involved in the lawsuit's preparation, but that he was ''knowledgeable about this case."

The Justice Department sued Boston in a pattern of litigation against places that did not vote for President Bush, Becker asserted in a memo last week to Mayor Thomas M. Menino's chief of staff, Merita Hopkins.

Becker said the Justice Department plans to allege that voter violations in Chinatown polling places were ''intentionally caused by Mayor Menino and his allies who seek to deliver Chinatown to the mayor," but, he said, the Justice Department's evidence of that ''appeared to be weak."

He also said Justice Department investigators had information of possible problems at several polling places in Boston, but that they did nothing to help correct the problems, preferring to collect evidence for a lawsuit.

''There is a strong possibility that [the city] will not only be fully vindicated by the court, but could perhaps collect attorneys' fees and sanctions based on the DOJ's bad-faith tactics," Becker said in the memo.

Justice Department spokesman Eric W. Holland declined comment on Becker's allegations or his communication with city officials while still a lawyer with the agency.

''It's a personnel matter," he said, adding that the Justice Department has brought suit in many areas that voted Republican in the presidential election, including Florida, Texas, and San Diego.

City officials, who have called the allegations in the lawsuit unfounded, said they were first approached by Becker in April. He sent e-mails to corporation counsel Mark Sweeney critical of the case and offered his services, at $250 an hour.

In last week's e-mail to Hopkins, he said that in the past two years the Justice Department has brought 12 minority-language lawsuits, all in states that did not vote for President Bush in the last election.

Even though Texas has more groups covered by the federal Voting Rights Act than any other state, he said, no lawsuits have been brought there.

The department brought an enforcement action there once, on behalf of Vietnamese voters, because they ''are considered to be reliable Republican voters," he charged.

''Not one of these recently-sued jurisdictions seriously fought the imposition of these decrees," wrote Becker to Sweeney in April, while he was still working for the Justice Department, ''thus feeding [the Justice Department attorneys'] belief that they can impose their will on jurisdictions without need to support their case in court."

Yesterday, Becker said he doesn't consider himself a whistle-blower and contacted city officials ''soliciting business."

Becker said his knowledge of the case was ''based entirely on public facts" gleaned from newspaper stories and the court documents filed in July.

In the suit filed last month, the Department of Justice alleged that the city and its poll workers interfered with voters' rights by ''improperly influencing, coercing, or ignoring the ballot choices of limited-English-proficient Hispanic or Asian-American voters."

It also alleged that the city failed to provide adequate translation services and that some poll workers treated members of minority groups disrespectfully.

The suit said the government would seek federal oversight of city elections until 2007.

The suit named the city and each city councilor individually. Becker contacted three city councilors this week and offered his services.

Yesterday three California officials who worked with Becker described him as a lawyer who worked cooperatively with the communities he sought to bring into compliance with the Voting Rights Act.

''He's extremely competent and one of the best voting-rights attorneys we had worked with out of the DOJ," said Kathay Feng, executive director of Common Cause of California, who worked with Becker when she was an official of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center.

Nancy Fenton, deputy county counsel of Alameda County (Calif.), said she worked opposite Becker when Alameda County was under a consent decree.

''I think he has the goals of minority voting at heart," she said.

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