Watchdog: Ross misled on reason for citizenship question

Mike Schneider
Associated Press

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.

In this March 10, 2020, file photo, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross testifies before a House Appropriations subcommittee on Capitol Hill, in Washington.

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.

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.

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 citizenship question.