The U.S. Civil Rights Commission is considering holding public hearings to investigate the disputed Black Panthers voter intimidation case, Main Justice has learned.
A plan circulated last month by the commission envisions possibly one hearing in Philadelphia, where members of the militant New Black Panther Party were accused of intimidating voters by standing outside a polling place last November in quasi-military garb, one of them holding a night stick, according to a document reviewed by Main Justice.
Another hearing is tentatively slated in Washington early next year, and would seek to call current and former Justice Department officials to testify.
The hearings would keep in the public eye a controversial and racially tinged case that has already been a significant distraction for the new Obama Justice Department.
“More oversight is a good thing,” independent Commissioner Todd Gaziano, an official with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said in an interview.
But Francisco-based Michael Yaki, one of two Democrats on the Civil Rights Commission, criticized the continued spotlight on the case. ”This is basically going to be a partisan kangaroo court, convened by my partisan colleagues,” Yaki said.
Conservatives have objected to the Obama DOJ’s decision in May to dismiss the case against the New Black Panther Party and two of its members, and the controversy contributed to a delay in confirming President Obama’s choice to head the Civil Rights Division, Tom Perez.
The case was filed in January, in the waning days of the Bush administration. But after the Black Panthers failed to contest the allegations, then-acting Civil Rights Division chief Loretta King reviewed the matter. She found the evidence weak and recommended dropping the charges, DOJ officials have said. There were First Amendment concerns about pursuing a lawsuit against the men based in part on their dress, and one of the accused Black Panthers — Jerry Jackson — was a certified Democratic poll watcher, DOJ officials have said.
The Justice Department did obtain an injunction against defendant, Minister King Samir Shabazz, who held the night stick outside the majority-black polling station in Philadelphia.
In September the commission — composed of four Republicans, two independents with conservative affiliations, and two Democrats — reviewed plans for an investigation and hearings.
The plan includes gathering depositions or other information from Bartle Bull, a 1960s-era civil rights lawyer who said in an interview with Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly that he heard one of the Black Panthers say, “Now you’ll see what it is like to be ruled by a black man, cracker;” poll watchers Larry and Angela Counts and Chris Hill; the independent journalist working for the local Republican Party, Stephen R. Morse, who videotaped the Black Panthers in what became a YouTube hit; and the local police officers who responded to calls on election day from white Republican poll watchers concerned about the Black Panthers’ presence.
The panel would also seek to interview the defendants in the case, including Malik Zulu Shabazz, chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based Black Panthers. The voice mail at the New Black Panther Party headquarters is full, and no one has answered the phone in repeated attempts to contact the organization.
The commission might also seek depositions from other current DOJ officials, including Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, the department’s No. 3 official who signed off on King’s recommendation to dismiss the suit; King; Diana K. Flynn, chief of the civil Appellate Section; and Christopher Coats, Voting Rights Section chief.
The envisioned hearings in Washington would also likely pit Bush-era Civil Rights Division officials, who have been accused of politicizing the division, against Obama DOJ officials working under the first black Attorney General, Eric Holder, who has said he wants to return the division to its “historic mission” of enforcing anti-discrimination laws to protect minorities.
Commission Chairman Gerald Reynolds did not respond to requests for comment placed through commission spokeswoman Lenore Ostrowsky.
The case also has many racial overtones. The Southern Poverty Law Center has classified the New Black Panther Party (which is not affiliated with the 1960s-era Black Panthers founded by Huey Newton) as a hate group for its anti-white rhetoric. And King, the career civil rights division lawyer who recommended dismissing the charges, is black. But most of the accusers are white, and the case was signed off on by then-acting Civil Rights Division chief Grace Chung Becker, who failed to win Senate confirmation after Democrats questioned her commitment to enforcing discrimination laws on behalf of minorities.
Moreover, Bartle Bull’s charge that one of the Black Panthers used a racial slur against whites while invoking the impending election of Barack Obama — the nation’s first black president — has been further grist for the mill, mostly among conservative commentators.
We are seeking comment from the Justice Department and will update this report if we receive a response. In the past, DOJ spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler has said: “We are committed to vigorous enforcement of the laws protecting anyone exercising his or her right to vote.”
Below is the You Tube video of police arriving at the Philadelphia polling station last November: