Washington, D.C. – Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) today delivered the following statement before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission at a hearing looking into the dismissal of a voter intimidation case involving members of the New Black Panther Party at a polling place in Philadephia in November 2008:
Mr. Chairman and members of the commission, I want to thank you for the opportunity to testify today. I have several documents I would like to submit for the commission’s record as part of my testimony. (NOTE: Documents are online at wolf.house.gov/oversight)
As the former chairman and current ranking member on the House Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, I am very familiar with the commission’s essential role in ensuring the integrity of our nation’s civil and voting rights laws.
As you well know, the commission has an important special statutory responsibility to ‘investigate voting rights deprivations and make appraisals of federal policies to enforce federal voting rights laws.’ Congress instilled this independent oversight responsibility of the commission in statute: ‘All Federal agencies shall fully cooperate with the commission to the end that it may effectively carry out its functions and duties.’ I would remind the Attorney General that this includes the commission’s authority to subpoena witnesses.
I appreciate your efforts to investigate this unexplained dismissal of the U.S. v. New Black Panther Party case, which has serious and dangerous consequences for future voter intimidation enforcement. I am a strong supporter of the Voting Rights Act, which is why I was so deeply troubled by Justice’s questionable dismissal of such an important voter intimidation case in Philadelphia, where, it should be noted, I grew up and my father was a policeman.
My commitment to voting rights is unquestioned. In 1981, I was the only member – Republican or Democrat – of the Virginia delegation in the House to vote for the Voting Rights Act and was harshly criticized then by the editorial page of the Richmond Times Dispatch, the state’s leading newspaper. I was criticized, too, in 2006, by another state newspaper when I supported the act’s reauthorization.
From the beginning, I have asked the question: why did the department dismiss this serious case? Look at the facts. If this is not a clear case of voter intimidation, I do not know what is. The public can view video of the incident as well as other examples of the party’s intimidation in a clip from National Geographic Channel documentary, titled ‘Coming to A Polling Place Near You, posted on the Web at: www.electionjournal.org.
My concerns have only been compounded over the last year in light of the department’s obstruction of oversight investigations by the Congress and this commission. The actions of the attorney general to allow the department’s obstruction of this commission’s investigation are puzzling. I believe he is undermining the federal oversight of the Justice Department.
For nearly a year, I have been urging the department to release all the documents surrounding this case and to make a genuine attempt to answer the questions asked by members of Congress and this Commission. My requests have been rebuffed at each turn. Earlier this year, I introduced a Resolution of Inquiry that would have compelled the Attorney General to release all requested documents to the Congress. It was defeated in a party-line vote in the House Judiciary Committee.
I have urged the department’s Inspector General, Glenn Fine, on multiple occasions to open an investigation into whether improper political influence contributed to the dismissal of this case. Unfortunately, Mr. Fine continues to maintain willful ignorance, which I believe is an unacceptable abdication of his responsibilities as Inspector General. Mr. Fine’s lack of action, I believe, deserves the scrutiny of the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency. I will be requesting that the council investigate his failure with regard to this matter.
What should be bipartisan support for robust voting rights enforcement has become a shameful example of the types of partisan obstruction that undermine our nation’s civil rights laws. Last summer, The Washington Times reported that the department’s voter intimidation case against the New Black Panther Party was dismissed over the objections of career attorneys on the trial team, as well as the chief of the division’s Appellate Division.
According to the Appellate Division memos first disclosed in the Times article, Appellate Chief Diana K. Flynn said that ‘the appropriate action was to pursue the default judgment’ and that Justice had made a ‘reasonable argument in favor of default relief against all defendants.’
Flynn’s opinion was shared by a second Appellate Division official, Marie K. McElderry, who stated, ‘The government’s predominant interest is preventing intimidation, threats and coercion against voters or persons urging or aiding persons to vote or attempt to vote.’
Given these troubling disclosures, I have repeatedly called on the attorney general to re-file this civil suit and allow a ruling from the judge based on the merits of the case, not political expediency. The career trial team should be allowed to bring the case again – per the guidance I obtained from the Congressional Research Service’s American Law Division in its July 30 memo – to allow our nation’s justice system to work as it was intended: impartially and without bias.
Sources within the department stated that Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, a political appointee, in conjunction with the acting assistant attorney general for civil rights, Ms. Loretta King, and her deputy, Mr. Steve Rosenbaum, overruled the career attorneys in the Voting Rights section. Earlier this week, the department finally acknowledged that the Attorney General was made aware – on multiple occasions – of the steps being taken to dismiss this case.
Why would the department’s political leadership overrule the unanimous opinion of the career attorneys on the trial team and the appellate division?
Why would the department’s political leadership not seek a default judgment to secure the maximum enforcement of the Voting Rights Act?
The Justice Department is responsible for the vigorous enforcement of civil rights statute. It is my understanding that the career attorneys who originally brought this case continue to stand by its merit. The politicization of the Justice Department against career employees is absolutely wrong and both the Congress and this commission ought to get to the bottom of this.
I want to leave you with one last thought. It is my understanding that the career Voting Section chief, Chris Coates, offered a vigorous defense of the New Black Panther Party case at his going-away luncheon earlier this year. According to one report, ‘At the end [of the luncheon in his honor], the attendees were startled when Coates pulled out a binder and began reciting a written defense of his decision to file’ the New Black Panther case. Coates reportedly stated: ‘I did my best to enforce all of our voting statutes for all Americans, and I leave here with my soul rested that I did the right thing to the best of my ability.’
Although the Attorney General will not allow the career attorneys to testify before this commission, I believe this anecdote helps to convey the ardent opposition of the department’s career attorneys to the dismissal of this voting rights case. I again call on the Attorney General to comply with the commission’s subpoenas and allow the career attorneys to testify.
This commission and the American people should be insulted that the Attorney General would only agree to allow Tom Perez, a political appointee who wasn’t even employed at the department at the time of the dismissal, to testify.
“I believe – and I believe the American would agree – that it is imperative that we protect the right of every American to vote, a sacrosanct and inalienable right of any democracy.
The career attorneys and Appellate Division within the department sought to demonstrate the federal government’s commitment to protecting this right by vigorously prosecuting any individual or group that seeks to undermine this right.
The American people deserve the kind of impartial leadership at the Justice Department that will allow this case to go forward again – not the kind of political leadership that has tilted the scales of justice.
Thank you again for your commitment to voting rights enforcement and I would be happy to answer any questions.