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Thornburgh Vows to Be Firm on Civil Rights

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Times Washington Bureau Chief

Some Americans may be in for “rougher and tougher” treatment from the Justice Department as it helps implement President Bush’s version of “a kinder, gentler America,” Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh declared Monday.

Although he did not spell out what measures the Justice Department will take, Thornburgh vowed that there will be “firm law enforcement” in several areas, including civil rights and environmental protection and illegal drug trafficking. “Very high priority” will be given to prosecuting any law enforcement officers linked to drug trafficking, he said.

Reagan Officials Accused

During Ronald Reagan’s eight years as President, his Administration was widely accused of shunning civil rights leaders and of failing to adequately enforce environmental and civil rights laws.

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Thornburgh stressed that he already has met with civil rights leaders and that under Bush they have access to the Justice Department and are being consulted on civil rights cases.

Already, he said, some civil rights leaders have “grudgingly agreed” that there may be instances where they will agree with the Justice Department that old court orders decreeing school desegregation should be terminated because the schools are now desegregated and the orders are not needed.

During the Reagan Administration, he said, the department “aroused a great deal of animosity” when it moved to terminate such orders without consulting civil rights groups.

In 1987, the Justice Department sent out its first letters seeking to remove desegregation orders from schools that it said had become integrated. A civil rights group--the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund--contested the department’s attempt to strip the orders from 11 districts, all in Georgia. In the words of one department attorney, “substantial litigation ensued,” and so far none of the cases have been dismissed.

‘Animosity’ Developed

Bush’s primary goal, Thornburgh said, is to re-establish lines of communication with civil rights groups that became “snarled” during the Reagan years and to “reduce the apparent level of animosity” that developed between them and the White House.

While civil rights groups often found themselves aligned against the Justice Department in civil rights cases during the Reagan Administration, Thornburgh said that under Bush the department and the groups can make “joint assaults” on problems as they “work together to solve the nation’s civil rights problems.”

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Thornburgh, interviewed at a luncheon session with reporters, also disclosed that the Justice Department soon will announce a special task force to work with U.S. attorneys in the mushrooming investigation of fraud in Chicago’s commodities markets.

He called it a “serious and substantial” investigation that has included extensive FBI undercover work, but he declined to say when criminal charges are expected. The Justice Department task force, he said, will coordinate the work of several U.S. attorneys.

Thornburgh, who was appointed attorney general by Reagan last July and reappointed by Bush, bristled when a reporter suggested that he had been reluctant to criticize his predecessor, Edwin Meese III, even though the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility filed a report accusing Meese of ethical violations while in office.

“I’m not reluctant to criticize him,” Thornburgh said, adding that he had released to the public the department’s report of how Meese had “violated departmental and governmental ethical standards.”

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