Former Labor Secretary Perez Ignored Nuclear Plant Workers Pleas for Help

As a multicultural radical, Thomas Perez is well-suited for his current job as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. As a government official, he is anything but that. Last week a lawyer for the Department of Labor went public with damning evidence that Perez, while heading DOL during the second Obama term, thwarted congressionally-mandated payouts to Cold War-era nuclear arsenal employees with job-related illnesses. The whistleblower, Stephen Silbiger, accused Perez of “open hostility” toward the workers, some of whom died waiting in futility for their claims to be processed. The story, which appeared in last Friday’s Washington Free Beacon, suggests the Democratic Party, like Perez, is not on the side of American workers, populist rhetoric notwithstanding.

National Legal and Policy Center on several occasions has been sharply critical of Thomas Perez, particularly in March 2013 when President Barack Obama named him to succeed Hilda Solis as the nation’s next secretary of labor. During the first Obama term, Perez had been the Department of Justice’s chief civil rights enforcer. He was then, and remains today, an ethnic and ideological radical, immersed in a nonstop mission to recast America as a global sanctuary. During those DOJ years he spoke openly of “undocumented” (i.e., illegal) immigrants “living in the shadows”; “our Muslim-American brothers and sisters subject to post-9/11 backlash”; “communities of color disproportionately affected by the subprime meltdown”; and “LGBT brothers and sisters…forced to confront discrimination.” Bankers who reject credit applications by members of nonwhite racial and ethnic minority groups for any reason, he remarked, are no different from Klansmen, save for their use of “a smile” and “fine print” as opposed to a burning cross. Everywhere this man looked, it seemed, he saw oppressed “brothers and sisters.”

If Perez’s words were appalling, his actions were worse. He pushed the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division further down the road to anti-white radicalism. Among other things, he sought to undermine Census-based redistricting pursuant to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as “disenfranchising” minorities; filed racial profiling charges against Maricopa County, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio based on wholly unsubstantiated claims that the county had violated Hispanic civil rights; coerced banks into accepting exorbitant settlements based on spurious lawsuits alleging mortgage lending discrimination; and refused to prosecute members of the New Black Panther Party who, as indicated in video footage, intimidated white voters at a Philadelphia polling station on Election Day 2008.

President Obama, true to his own convictions, nominated Thomas Perez for secretary of labor anyway, despite the latter’s lack of experience in labor law and policy. The Senate, in a 54-46 party-line vote, approved the nomination that July. Once in office, Perez, if by omission, did not waste time putting his vision into effect. The interests of immigrant workers, even those here illegally, apparently had a higher priority than enforcement of labor law. On July 23, the day of his swearing-in ceremony, two ranking House Republicans, John Kline, R-Minn., and Phil Roe, R-Tenn., wrote Secretary Perez a letter asking for clarification of the legal status of nonprofit ‘worker centers’ that were proliferating across the nation. Because these nonunion organizations mimic union behavior and often are union fronts, the letter noted, they ought to be subject to federal laws that govern unions, including those related to financial disclosure. Kline and Roe noted that worker centers such as the Los Angeles-based Korean Immigrant Worker Advocates likely had been skirting the law in their organizing and picketing activity. Perez never responded to the request.

The presidential election defeat of Hillary Clinton last November assured that Thomas Perez would be out of government for a while – he actually had been considered as a vice-presidential running mate. But as a Hispanic identity politician with an extensive background in law and government, he suddenly was the favorite contender for succeeding Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. And this February 25 at a highly contentious meeting in Atlanta, Perez was elected chairman in a close vote over Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., a black and a Muslim convert. Following his win, Perez called Donald Trump “the worst president in the history of the United States” (so soon?) and vowed to do everything to deny Trump a second term. He also passed the peace pipe to disgruntled Ellison supporters by making the Minnesota congressman party vice chairman. With Perez running the show, the Democrats are guaranteed to continue their leftward movement.

Before Thomas Perez can celebrate future victories, however, he now has to deal with an unexpected problem from his past. An article appearing in the July 21 Washington Free Beacon quoted Stephen Silbiger, a senior attorney at the Solicitor’s Office of the U.S. Department of Labor and now a whistleblower. Silbiger accused top DOL officials of withholding mandated compensation for former employees at Oak Ridge, Los Alamos and other nuclear arsenals suffering from cancer and other job-related illnesses. Some of these people, he told Free Beacon senior writer Susan Crabtree, died waiting for money and/or services that the DOL did not approve or even necessarily consider. Secretary Perez and certain other agency officials, said Silbiger, not only ignored these workers, but displayed “open hostility” toward them.

Back in 2000, Congress passed a law known as the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA). This legislation, which had broad bipartisan support, authorized the federal government to pay medical bills and lost wages of workers and supervisors who had assembled nuclear weapons during the Cold War, and who in the process had exposed themselves to high doses of toxins. The law, which established a $400,000 per household cap, was intended to speed up disbursements of funds. And there was much disbursement. By the end of last July, the program had paid out a cumulative $12.7 billion in compensation and medical benefits to 105,602 nuclear weapons workers and surviving family members. What those figures don’t reveal is that deserving workers now are getting shortchanged, a legacy of Tom Perez’s tenure at the Department of Labor.

During the latter months of the Obama era, the Labor Department revised program regulations to severely restrict the availability of compensation and medical services. Moreover, the department behaved unethically by: 1) refusing to disclose all application rules; 2) changing eligibility rules after they had been established; and 3) knowingly delaying compensation until the sick workers died. Silbiger, who previously had worked eight years at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), said he raised these issues with Assistant Secretary of Labor Michael Kerr and DOL Solicitor Patricia Smith, but received no response. EEOICPA Ombudsman Malcolm Nelson did respond, and sympathetically, but told Silbiger that his office, unlike the Office of Inspector General, lacked the power to conduct investigations.

Silbiger’s accusations received a boost in credibility last August in a New Mexico federal court ruling on a complaint lodged almost two years earlier. In Lucero v. Department of Labor, U.S. District Judge Martha Vazquez overturned a Labor Department denial of compensation to the widow of a deceased nuclear worker. The governing statute, wrote Judge Vazquez, “unambiguously entitled” survivors of a worker already qualifying for the compensation to a sum that the employee “would have received in accordance [with the law] if the employee’s death had not occurred before compensation was paid.” The department’s rejection of the application, being contrary to the “plain meaning” of the statute, was “arbitrary and capricious” and therefore void. Silbiger believes the department’s denial of benefits demonstrates a larger problem within the agency. “There’s explicit hostility toward claimants,” he told the Free Beacon, “and this has become a game for bureaucrats to see how clever they can be in manipulating the statute and the regs to deny benefits to indigent claimants.”

A group representing program beneficiaries, the Alliance of Nuclear Workers Advocacy Groups (ANWAG), makes these points as well. In a July 12 letter to Labor Department Inspector General Scott Dahl, ANWAG charged that the rule change proposals are illegal because they were never adopted through official rulemaking procedures and were used to deny claims months and even years before. The group demanded an investigation of ethical and legal lapses during the revisions. The new rules require that a worker identify the “trigger month” in which he or she first became disabled, and that the worker must be employed during that month to be eligible for wage-loss compensation. ANWAG counters that the rule does not take into account symptoms that could have taken root well before a medical diagnosis. The group stated: “We believe government employees responsible for implementing EEOICPA have abused their power, ignored the laws of the land [and] failed to comply with executive orders requiring that agencies operate in a transparent manner.”

As labor secretary, Thomas Perez had a hand in this. Pursuant to congressional mandate, Perez on April 1, 2016 appointed 15 members representatives from the scientific, medical and legal communities to a panel that would develop recommendations to make the program more accountable. Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Tom Udall, D-N.M., had written a letter to Secretary Perez the previous day requesting that he delay the rule change, which had been proposed the previous November, until the advisory board could offer input. They wrote:

The men and women who were exposed to radiation and toxic substances at our nation’s nuclear facilities deserved to have their claims evaluated in a fair and equitable manner. DOL’s proposed rule change may increase the burden on claimants with little or no explanation. While some changes memorialize existing practice, others have raised concerns, including modifying a claimant’s ability to change their treating physician which arguably provides DOL more discretion to exclude providers, but also takes away the right of a patient to be seen by a doctor of their choice. Under the proposed rule, qualified claimants also risk losing coverage if they are too sick to travel for second medical opinions or represent themselves at administrative hearings. Such a requirement increases the burden on those least able to care for themselves.

Were this not convincing enough for Perez to look before he leaped, the Government Accountability Office earlier in the month had released a report, based on a random sample of claimant experiences, concluding that while the DOL generally adhered to established procedures, there was a good deal of room for improvement. The GAO cautioned against finalizing the rule change without taking into account the report’s findings. But the department went ahead and instituted the rule anyway.

How, then, does one explain Thomas Perez’s aversion to sensible advice from a variety of sources? Why did he and other Labor Department officials circumvent standard procedures for rule changes in order to prevent ailing workers from receiving due benefits? One can speculate at length here, but the best explanation is that Perez is a racial grievance politician first and a public servant second. For him, expanding the “right” of Hispanics illegally in this country to remain permanently is a priority. Protecting the “right” of black revolutionaries to terrorize white voters in Philadelphia (and firing DOJ prosecutors who complained about it) is a priority. But assisting American workers who risked and often lost their lives handling hazardous materials at nuclear weapons facilities isn’t a priority. Perez’s elevation to the top of the Democratic Party hierarchy says many things about him and the party – none of them good.