One of President Donald Trump’s picks for a federal judgeship is pushing back on allegations that he lied to the Senate about his knowledge of a voter intimidation scheme in North Carolina in 1990 ― but he now acknowledges he attended a meeting to discuss “ballot security” shortly before the election.
Thomas Farr, now nominated for a district court seat in North Carolina, served as a lawyer to Sen. Jesse Helms’ (R-N.C.) 1990 campaign. Shortly before Election Day that autumn, the campaign sent more than 100,000 postcards to black voters containing incorrect information about voter qualifications and warning that voter fraud was punishable by up to five years in prison.
The Justice Department sued over the scheme and eventually settled with a consent decree, though the campaign never admitted wrongdoing. During his confirmation hearing this September, Farr told senators he hadn’t known about the plan until the Justice Department contacted the campaign about it.
But J. Gerald Hebert, deputy chief of the Justice Department’s voting section at the time, questioned whether that was true.
Hebert, who spoke frequently with the investigators on the case but did not work on it directly, kept contemporaneous notes on cases. His notes show that Farr attended a meeting about “ballot security” in October 1990, before the postcards were sent out. Hebert’s comments were first reported by INDY Week.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) asked Farr to clarify what he knew about the scheme, and Farr responded on Tuesday, disputing Hebert’s recollection.
Farr acknowledged, however, that he participated in a meeting about “ballot security” just before the 1990 election. He said he did not discuss the specific postcards that were eventually sent.
“Several weeks before the election, I participated in a short meeting with persons who wanted to be hired to do a ballot security program for the Helms Committee in 1990. During that meeting, I told them there was no reason for them to do a card mailing in 1990 because North Carolina law had been changed and return cards could not be used to challenge voters,” Farr wrote to Booker. “There was no discussion about the content of any hypothetical card. I also told them they might attempt to use returned cards in a recount. However, at the time of this meeting I was doubtful of the utility of any card mailing, even in a recount, because of a change in North Carolina law.”
During his confirmation, Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) asked Farr repeatedly about any advice he gave on the postcard mailings.
Farr did not disclose the October ballot security meeting, but said that after the Justice Department contacted the campaign, he was “appalled” to learn they had been sent to target African-American voters.
“I was appalled to read the incorrect language printed on the card and to then discover it had been sent to African-Americans. I then learned that the Helms Committee intended to use any returned cards to challenge voters on Election Day,” he said in response to a question from Durbin. “After I became aware of this effort, the Helms Committee followed my advice to cancel any and all Election Day activities related to the use of these cards to challenge voters. Based upon my instructions, returned cards were not used to challenge voters.”
Farr’s defense comes days after Matthew Petersen withdrew his name for consideration for a seat on the federal bench after a video of him failing to answer basic legal questions went viral. Petersen was the third of Trump’s judicial nominees to drop out.
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights has accused Farr of misleading the Senate and called on him to withdraw his nomination. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Washington Post editorial board have called on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which approved Farr’s nomination in October, to call him back for more questions about the discrepancies.
Farr’s claim that he knew nothing about the postcard campaign was complemented by a letter from Carter Wrenn, Helms’ campaign manager in 1990. Wrenn said he had approved the controversial postcard and Farr couldn’t possibly have known about it before it was sent.
“First, the actual postcard that was mailed could not have been discussed because it did not exist at the time of the meetings described by Mr. Hebert. And second, the problem with the postcard that was actually mailed was the copy: It was the copy and who the card was mailed to that was the problem,” Wrenn wrote in a letter to Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). “I never talked with Tom Farr about the actual card that was mailed, the copy, or who it had been mailed to, until after I received the Justice Department letter.”
Hebert said Wednesday that Farr’s disclosure of the October meeting contradicts what he told the Senate.
“He claimed to Feinstein he had no involvement. He now concedes he met with the ballot security team in mid October,” Hebert told HuffPost in an email. “That team was discussing ways to suppress the vote. That team later sent out the cards, but I never said Farr knew they were doing it. He may have, but he denies it.”
Hebert is now the senior director of voting rights and redistricting at Campaign Legal Center, a group that has led legal challenges to voter ID laws and redistricting plans.
Farr has come under scrutiny for defending North Carolina’s voter ID law, which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit blocked last year, saying it targeted African-Americans “with almost surgical precision.”