The leader of the New Black Panther Party skipped a deposition scheduled for this morning by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Main Justice has learned.
A commission hearing on the Justice Department’s handling of the case against the New Black Panther Party and three of its members, including party leader Malik Zulu Shabazz, is scheduled for Feb. 12. Today’s deposition was intended to allow the commission to gather more information about the case, which centers around a politically controversial incident at a polling place in Philadelphia on Nov. 4, 2008.
A government lawsuit filed in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration in January 2009 alleged that two Black Panthers intimidated voters at the polling place by standing outside its entrance in military-style garb, one of them holding a night stick. Shabazz wasn’t present at the Philadelphia polling place, but he was named a defendant by virtue of his position as head of the Washington, D.C.-based black power fringe group.
When the Black Panthers last year failed to respond to the lawsuit, a career DOJ attorney named Loretta King, who was then acting head of the Civil Rights Division, recommended dismissing most of the case. Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli, an Obama administration political appointee, approved her recommendation.
Outraged Republicans have asked the DOJ’s internal ethics watchdog to investigate whether politics played a role in the dismissal. The Justice Department, however, has said the lawsuit was dismissed because it didn’t rise to the level of a coordinated voter intimidation campaign and there were questions about suing people in part based on their clothing. The government did obtain an injunction against the Black Panther who’d held the night stick.
David Blackwood, counsel to the commission, wrote a letter today to Shabazz noting the commission had received no communication from him, despite issuing a subpoena for his testimony on Jan. 22 and writing him a follow-up letter on Jan. 25.
Starting at 10 a.m. Tuesday, commission staffers sat around for 25 minutes waiting for Shabazz to appear, according to Blackwood’s letter. He added that unless the commission received communication with him before Feb. 4, the matter would be referred to the Justice Department for enforcement and sanctions.
The conservative-dominated Civil Rights Commission intends to make the incident the focus of its annual enforcement report for 2010. Last year’s report focused more broadly on the issue of the mortgage crisis. In recent meetings, Democratic Commissioner Michael Yaki has denounced the conservative majority for focusing on the Black Panther matter. Yaki has sought to broaden the scope of the 2010 enforcement report, which Commissioner Todd Gaziano titled “Implications of DOJ’s Actions in the New Black Panther Party (NBPP) Litigation for Enforcement of Section 11(b) of the Voting Rights Act.”
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights hopes to release a list of witnesses scheduled for the Feb. 12 hearing on the handling of the case in the upcoming days, said commission spokesperson Lenore Ostrowsky.
No representatives of the Justice Department are expected to attend, but the Republican poll watchers who complained may, according to a person familiar with the commission’s plan. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) has requested and been granted time to speak during the commission’s upcoming meeting.
OPR now conducting full investigation, IG says
Separately today, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine replied to a letter from Wolf which requested an investigation into whether the politics affected the division’s handling of the case.
Fine wrote that he “has advocated changing the [Office of the Inspector General's] jurisdiction to allow us to investigate all matters within the Department, including matters such as this one that involve Department attorneys’ exercise of their legal duties. Unfortunately, unlike all other [Office of the Inspector Generals] which have unlimited jurisdiction to investigate all allegations of waste, fraud, or abuse within their agencies, the Department of Justice [Office of the Inspector General] does not.”
Fine wrote that Office of Professional Responsibility had told his office it was “in the midst of its investigation – which is a full investigation, not a preliminary investigation or inquiry.” It intends to share the results of its investigation with Congress, according to Fine’s letter. Previously OPR had only said it was conducting a more limited preliminary “inquiry” into the matter, according to documents released last summer by House Republicans.
Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs Ron Weich also wrote Wolf today regarding his concern that the Office for Professional Responsibility could not conduct an “unbias and independent review” of the matter. “We believe that such a charge is groundless,” Weich said.