A former Justice Department lawyer who filed a controversial voter intimidation case against the New Black Panther Party testified Tuesday that the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division encouraged a culture of “lawlessness” and purposely avoided filing cases against black defendants that alleged voting rights violations.
In testimony before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, former trial attorney J. Christian Adams denounced the Justice Department for dismissing the Black Panthers case and vociferously denied media reports that he was “disgruntled” with the department.
“I was just promoted two weeks before I resigned, so I certainly was not disgruntled,” he said. “My personal views about things never had anything to do with what I did at the Voting Section. You mentioned being conservative. I think that’s pretty simplistic and juvenile.”
Adams quit his job with the Justice Department’s Voting Section earlier this year, citing the DOJ’s handling of a November 2008 incident at a Philadelphia polling place and its refusal to allow him to testify before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights about it.
Two members of the anti-white fringe group stood outside the majority-black polling place in military-style garb, one of them holding a night stick.
Adams helped compile a civil voter intimidation lawsuit against the men, based on a rarely used section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But the Obama DOJ later dismissed the case against all but one defendant, citing a lack of a pattern of intimidation.
Congressional Republicans cried foul, and the conservative-controlled U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has taken up the case, issuing subpoenas for testimony from Adams and other career attorneys involved in the decision to file and dismiss the case.
Adams has become an outspoken critic of his former workplace since his resignation, appearing on Fox News and writing scathing posts for the conservative publication Pajamas Media.
In his testimony Tuesday, Adams said he helped compile the department’s case along with former Voting Section Chief Christopher Coates — who transferred to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Carolina earlier this year. According to Adams, Steve Rosenbaum, Chief of the Housing and Civil Enforcement Section, and then-acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King ordered the case dropped — just a few hours before the deadline to file a motion that would have awarded the Justice Department a default judgment.
While he was still with the department, Adams said he received a subpoena to testify before the commission. But the department informed him it would not enforce the subpoena, he said.
Adams said he felt compelled to resign after Thomas Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, gave unintentionally misleading testimony before the commission. Perez testified before the commission in May, saying that the case was primarily a dispute between career lawyers.
“If [Perez] had not testified the way he did, there is some chance I would not have resigned,” Adams said.
Adams said he met with Perez for about an hour the day of his testimony in May to “warn him that the testimony he might give would be inadequate.”
“I have not said that he [Perez] testified falsely,” Adams said. “I have not said that he lied. I think that he believes in some measure what he is saying.”
Adams disputed that he sought to testify before the commission for partisan reasons. Had the department moved to quash the subpoena, Adams said he would have been pleased — contradicting news accounts that say the career attorney was “fighting to testify.”
He also described a power struggle between Rosenbaum and his former boss, Coates — who gave a condemnatory going-away speech before division officials on Jan. 5.
Shortly after the 2008 presidential inauguration, Coates’ power was “slowly sucked away,” Adams testified, and Rosenbaum initiated an unusually strict policy of review over his activities.
“Rosenbaum was reviewing absolutely everything that Coates was doing — everything,” Adams said. “He was essentially acting…as the chief of the Voting Section in place of Coates.”
Adams exhorted the commission to pursue testimony from Coates directly. Thus far, the department has barred Coates from appearing.
“When you have the courage to call people out for lawlessness, they don’t like to hear it,” he added.
Described as a “whistleblower” last week by Fox News, Adams also was praised by independent Commissioner Todd Gaziano for his courage in testifying.
Gaziano, a senior fellow in legal studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation, expressed concern over alleged comments made by Deputy Assistant Attorney General Julie Fernandes regarding the administration’s position on civil rights suits against black defendants. Adams said that Fernandes instructed lawyers in the Voting Section not to file cases against racial minorities.
“I’m going to not only try to press the department to allow us to hear from Chris Coates, I’m going to seek a subpoena for Julie Fernandes as well,” he said.
In a statement, Democratic Commissioner Michael Yaki, who was unable to attend the hearing Tuesday morning, criticized the proceedings as “reminiscent of an inquisition.”
“This investigation, such as it is, has been incredibly shallow, expensive, and partisan,” Yaki said in the statement. “There exist serious issues today involving discrimination and racism in this country that the Commission’s far-right majority has ignored in its quixotic pursuit of a conspiracy and a policy that do not exist. These proceedings are reminiscent of an inquisition, a star chamber, and a witch hunt. They are not worthy of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.”
This post has been corrected to reflect that Gaziano was appointed as an independent to the Civil Rights Commission.