Technology

Eric Holder goes to bat for Uber

Former Attorney General Eric Holder is going to bat for Uber in the fight over what types of background checks the company should use for its drivers.

Holder wrote three letters earlier this month to local and state officials urging them not to require fingerprint-based background checks for purposes unrelated to law enforcement.

"When I served as U.S. Attorney General, I asked Attorneys General in every state and Cabinet secretaries throughout the federal government to consider how they could eliminate policies and regulations that impose unnecessary burdens on individuals reentering society," he said in the letters.

"For non-law enforcement purposes, fingerprint-based background checks are just such a practice."

The June 2 letters Holder sent to the mayor of Atlanta, an alderman in Chicago and a state senator in New Jersey never mentioned Uber or the ride-hailing industry.

Uber is battling over driver background checks in all of those jurisdictions. The company confirmed that Holder wrote the letters after it alerted him to their work on the issue.

Holder's law firm, Covington & Burling, advises Uber on safety issues, according to the company. Margaret Richardson, Holder's former chief of staff and a Covington employee, has sat on Uber's safety advisory board since it was formed last fall.

A spokesman for Covington said Uber "is a client of the firm" and declined to make Holder available for an interview.

There's also another link between Holder and the ride-hailing giant: Former Obama strategist David Plouffe is now a senior adviser to the company and a member of its board. Several former White House staff members have decamped to the company since Plouffe was hired.

Holder's letters on background checks went out to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, Chicago Alderman Anthony Beale and Paul Sarlo, the deputy majority leader of the New Jersey Senate.

The former attorney general cast his opposition to fingerprint-based checks as a matter of racial justice.

The checks draw on a large FBI database containing biometric information on people around the country, which critics say includes data on arrests but, often, not data on whether a person was actually convicted of a crime.

Holder told the officials that could hurt black and Hispanic men, who have a high likelihood of being arrested when they are young.

"The FBI database has a clearly-defined purpose: to aid law enforcement during investigations. It facilitates investigators who are then expected to follow up on information found in the database to determine whether it is complete or not," he said. "It was not designed to be used to determine whether or not someone is eligible for a work opportunity. Relying on it for that purpose is both unwise and unfair."

In Atlanta, the city council recently weighed whether to require Uber drivers to get fingerprint-based background checks if they want to pick passengers up at the city's bustling airport. Beale has proposed legislation that would mandate Uber and Lyft drivers get fingerprinted to drive for the services. And lawmakers in New Jersey are considering their own legislation on ride-hailing services.

The Chicago letter from Holder was first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times; the New Jersey letter was first reported by The Associated Press.

The local push for fingerprint background checks has been led, in part, by unions representing taxi and limousine drivers. They take issue with the way ride-hailing services are able to compete with their members without undergoing the same types of background checks.

Both Uber and rival service Lyft are taking the background check battle seriously. The companies left the city of Austin, Texas, in May after voters declined to reject a city council measure requiring the fingerprint checks.

The ride-hailing companies say their investigations of drivers, which are based on a person's name, are sufficient. But critics say fingerprint checks are the only way to thoroughly check a person's background.

Uber and Lyft were also signatories to a letter last month expressing concern to the Department of Justice over a proposal they said would make information on their biometric database secret.

"We believe the right path forward is to continue to improve the level of transparency and accountability that's built-into our service and the processes available for screening drivers," wrote Uber Chief Safety Officer Joe Sullivan at the time.

"Instead of relying solely on flawed databases that are known to have information gaps, our technology makes it possible to focus on safety before, during and after every trip."

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