A Republican member of Congress on Tuesday asked the Department of Justice Inspector General’s Office to look into allegations that DOJ officials consulted with the White House before deciding to dismiss voter intimidation charges last May against members of the New Black Panther Party.
In a letter to Inspector General Glenn Fine, Virginia Rep. Frank R. Wolf cited reports in The Washington Times that suggested Associate Attorney General Thomas Perelli visited the White House last spring on several dates that match up with developments in the case.
“I am deeply concerned about allegations that Associate Attorney General Perrelli consulted with the White House counsel’s office in his decision to dismiss this case,” Wolf wrote. “The Washington Times has reported a series of meetings between Mr. Perrelli and the deputy White House counsel corresponding to key dates in the decision to dismiss this case.”
“The pace of these visits immediately slowed following the final dismissal of the case,” Wolf continued. “If true, this represents a dangerous breakdown of the “firewall” policy that former Attorney General Mukasey put in place in 2007 to prevent politicization on active cases.”
Last year, Wolf asked the inspector general’s office to look into the matter, in which the DOJ dismissed most of a case against members of the militant anti-white fringe group, two of whose members stood outside a polling place in Philadelphia in November 2008 in quasi-military garb, one of them holding a nightstick.
Fine instead referred the case to the DOJ’s Office of Professional Responsibility. That investigation is still ongoing. The Justice Department has said there was no evidence of a coordinated voter intimidation campaign and that federal intervention wasn’t warranted. The government did win an injunction against the nightstick-wielding Black Panther.
The allegations in Wolf’s letter mirror those made by a former Bush Justice Department official, Hans von Spakovsky, that the meetings offer ”strong circumstantial evidence” that the White House was involved in the decision to dismiss the charges.
Spakovsky, writing for National Review Online last week, plucked out Perrelli’s appointments in the White House logs and matched them up with the dates of relevant actions in the New Black Panther litigation. The Washington Times wrote a similar piece the same day and later cited von Spakovsky’s piece as “confirmation” that its analysis was correct.
“All of this is circumstantial evidence, of course,” von Spakovsky wrote. “Perhaps all of Perrelli’s meetings had nothing to do with the NBPP case; perhaps Perrelli and the White House officials were discussing the latest Washington Redskins loss. Or perhaps not.”
But the No. 3 Justice could have have discussed any number of issues with the White House during the meetings last April and May such as tribal justice, the on-going negotiations related to the class-action Cobell v. Salazar settlement, making stimulus funds available to Indian County’s criminal justice needs, his trip with other cabinet officials to hard hit “auto communities,” or his testimony before a Senate committee on May 12.
The Justice Department declined to comment on Von Spakovsky’s piece or say what topics Perrelli covered in the White House meetings.
“We don’t respond to conspiracy theories from Hans von Spakovsky,” Justice Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told Main Justice.
Liberal news watch organization Media Matters blasted The Washington Times piece, saying the “editorial relied on falsehoods and distortions.”
The “editorial and accompanying timeline did not contain any reporting that Perrelli discussed the case with White House personnel in the meetings he had at the White House,” Media Matters wrote in an analysis. “Indeed, the Times acknowledged that one-third of the meetings Perrelli had at the White House occurred after the case was resolved.”
Von Spakovsky was a controversial figure in the Justice Department, where he served as a counselor to the assistant attorney general for civil rights from 2003 to 2005. While at the department, von Spakovsky advocated for a Georgia voter identification law that Democratic critics claimed made it harder for low-income and elderly citizens to vote. Then-Sen. Barack Obama was one such critic, writing is 2007 that von Spakovsky made “efforts to undermine voting rights” and had a “record of poor management, divisiveness, and inappropriate partisanship” at the Justice Department.
According to a 2008 Inspector General’s report, von Spakovsky and former DOJ officials John Tanner and Bradley Schlozman took political affiliations into account when reviewing résumés, making recommendations for applicants to be interviewed and conducting interviews for positions at the department. The report concluded that Schlozman violated federal law and that “division managers failed to exercise sufficient oversight to ensure that Schlozman did not engage in inappropriate hiring and personnel practices.” Because of von Spakovsky’s controversial tenure at the Justice Department, Democratic senators later refused to confirm him to a position on the Federal Election Commission.
In addition to the IG letter, Wolf last week penned a missive to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to request time to speak at its Feb. 12 hearing about the New Black Panthers controversy.
Todd Gaziano, a commissioner at the the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights who is spearheading the hearing on the Black Panther case, is a frequent collaborator with von Spakovsky, both as a co-author of pieces for National Review Online and as a colleague at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Gaziano hired von Spakovsky as a short term consultant to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in the summer of 2008. Last August, von Spakovsky was appointed to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ State Advisory Committee for Virginia, where he resides.
At last Friday’s meeting of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, four of the Republican appointed members voted to go into executive session to discuss the case. Abigail Thernstrom abstained and two Democratically appointed members voted against going into the closed session.
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Republican lawmaker Lamar Smith called for U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special prosecutor to look into the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now (ACORN).
The Texan, who is the ranking minority member of the House Judiciary Committee, said he believes the Department of Justice is unable to fairly investigate the organization because of ACORN’s connections to the Democratic Party.
Smith chaired a Republican forum — not an official congressional hearing — on ACORN Tuesday afternoon at which several witnesses made allegations of voter fraud and embezzlement against the organization. Republican members of the House Judiciary panel’s Oversight Subcommittee were joined by members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee at Tuesday’s gathering.
Hans von Spakovsky, a former Justice Department official who now works for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said that the Justice Department and FBI “have been almost entirely silent and seemingly negligent,” by not investigating ACORN.
Congress this fall enacted legislation banning federal funds from going to ACORN, but constitutional objections were raised. The Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel last week issued an opinion stating that contracts calling for payments to ACORN already awarded could not be voided.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) claimed that prior to the Justice Department’s decision, ACORN was in bankruptcy and was shutting down offices across the nation. A memo made public last week concluded the government should pay ACORN for contracts that were in place before Congress banned the community organizing group from receiving federal funds.
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Democratic members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights are accusing the agency’s conservative majority of acting in an “improperly partisan” manner in challenging the Obama Justice Department’s handling of the New Black Panther Party case.
The dispute stems from a May decision by the DOJ to dismiss most of a government voter intimidation case filed in the waning days of the Bush administration against members of the militant black-power group, two of whom were videotaped outside a Philadelphia polling place last November in quasi-military garb.
The controversy – which has been fanned by conservative bloggers and commentators and Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill – has become a significant distraction for Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department and contributed to a delay in confirming Civil Rights Division nominee Tom Perez.
The two Democrats on the eight-member Civil Rights Commission weighed in publicly for the first time last week, sending this letter to Holder outlining their objections.
On Sept 11., the commission voted to devote most of its 2009 annual report to an examination of the Black Panther case, to the exclusion of other civil rights matters, the letter said. Democratic commissioner Michael Yaki walked out of that meeting in protest and did not vote, according to the letter and interviews with commission members.
Yaki and the other Democrat on the commission, Arlan D. Melendez, said in their Oct. 1 letter to Holder that they find the agency’s decision to elevate the matter “deeply troubling.” They added that commission majority does “not have our support.”
“If our colleagues were truly interested in whether our federal government is adequately tackling allegations of voter intimidation, we would support a serious comprehensive review of how all such complaints have been handled by the Department over the past decade,” the Democratic commission members wrote.
Independent commission member Todd Gaziano, director of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said in an interview, “To suggest that there is some partisan motive is … laughable.”
But the Democratic members of the agency say Gaziano is a leader of the move to elevate the issue. They said in their letter to Holder that the Heritage Foundation official proposed expanding the commission’s investigation and nominated himself to a special subcommittee of the commission that will assume control of the investigation from career commission staff. The Democrats say they are boycotting this special subcommittee probe.
The Democrats also noted that Hans Von Spakovsky, a former Civil Rights Division official who was accused by Democrats of helping politicize the division during the Bush administration, formerly served as a consultant to Gaziano on the commission and now works with him at the Heritage Foundation. Von Spakovsky has been critical of the Black Panther case dismissal, writing in the National Review Online that “liberal and partisan” staff at the DOJ undermine the credibility of an internal ethics investigation now underway by the department’s Office of Professional Responsibility, the letter said.
“Our commission is choosing to devote a substantial amount of its resources to review a single case by the DOJ after years of turning a blind eye to the politicization of the Justice Department by the previous administration,” Yaki told Main Justice in an interview.
Gaziano disagreed with the Democratic members’ characterization of the commission’s motives. Speaking of the DOJ’s decision to dismiss the case, he told Main Justice: “The possible change in practice of policy may have some larger implications… affecting future voting rights enforcement.”
He added: “All Americans of all ideological persuasions would want to understand why the DOJ dismisses suits against persons who wear paramilitary uniforms and shout epithets at voters.”
At issue is an incident last November, where two members of the anti-white fringe group were videotaped standing in front of a majority-black polling place in Philadelphia wearing berets and military-style fatigues. One of the Black Panthers, identified in court papers as Minister King Samir Shabazz, held a nightstick.
Shabazz left the scene without incident after a police officer showed up in response to a call from a Republican poll watcher. The videotape was made by an independent journalist hired by the local Republican Party to monitor polling last November.
It was uploaded to YouTube, where it’s received more than 1 million views, through a site called electionjournal.org, run by a Republican political operative named Mike Roman. The incident was further publicized by the conservative leaning Fox News, which sent a reporter to Philadelphia polling place after the Black Panther members had departed.
The election-day videotape does not record any racial epithets. But the Southern Poverty Law Center has categorized the New Black Panther Party as a hate group for its anti-white rhetoric. Attempts to reach the D.C.-based organization were unsuccessful.
The civil case was filed by the Civil Rights Division on Jan. 7, two weeks before President Obama’s inauguration. It named as defendants the New Black Panther Party; its chairman, Malik Zulu Shabazz; and two members from Philadelphia, King Samir Shabazz and Jerry Jackson.
A Bush political appointee, Grace Chung Becker, signed the complaint in her capacity as acting chief of the Civil Rights Division. Becker wasn’t confirmed by the Senate because of concerns from Democrats that she wasn’t committed to upholding anti-discrimination laws designed to protect minorities.
When the New Black Panther Party and its members failed to contest the lawsuit, the DOJ last spring had to decide whether to seek a default judgment. At that point, the case came to the new acting head of the Civil Rights Division, Loretta King, a career Justice Department lawyer who’s been shepherding the division since Obama was sworn in as president.
King decided the case was shaky. One of the Black Panthers at the polling place, identified by the DOJ as Jackson, was a certified Democratic poll watcher, and there were First Amendment concerns about pursuing a lawsuit against the men based in part on their dress.
“The facts and the law did not support pursuing those claims against them,” Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs Ron Weich wrote in a July 13 letter to Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee.
The Justice Department did obtain an injunction against the nightstick-wielding Shabazz. But it dismissed the rest of the case, a move Republicans have portrayed as evidence the Obama DOJ is politicized.
“This case may be significant and it is clear only if we have the proper context,” Gaziano said in the interview, explaining why the commission has mounted an independent inquiry.
The Civil Rights Commission is an independent agency with no enforcement powers. It is currently composed of four Republicans, two independents with conservative affiliations, and two Democrats. The commissioners serve staggered six-year terms.
The panel was created by the 1957 Civil Rights Act. But its history of bitter partisan infighting has eroded its credibility over the years and left it marginalized as a player in Washington.
Nonetheless, the commission jumped into the Black Panther fray in June, sending a letter to King asking for more information about a Washington Times report that she recommended dismissal of the case. Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli, an Obama political appointee who ranks third in the department hierarchy, approved King’s request, the Washington Times reported.
In August, House Judiciary’s Smith asked GOP senators to delay confirmation of Perez, President Obama’s nominee to head the Civil Right Division, because the matter. (UPDATE: The Senate confirmed Perez on Tuesday after months of delay.)
Over the summer, Department lawyers wrote numerous letters to Smith and other Republican lawmakers, and trooped to meetings on Capitol Hill, to explain their handling of the case. Last month the DOJ’s internal ethics agency, the Office of Professional Responsibility, opened an inquiry into the matter, at the request of Smith and other Republicans.
The Black Panther civil case was filed under Section 11(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The DOJ says it has filed only three such cases in three decades. That meager record of enforcement is what should be under investigation by the commission, the Democratic members said in their letter to Holder.
“[O]ur colleagues apparently want to avoid a detailed review of the Department’s work on this issue during the previous administration, or the bigger question of whether the tools available to stop voter intimidation – including laws addressing ‘voter suppression’ tactics and enforcement funding – are adequate and well used,” Yaki and Melendez wrote.
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The US Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) is scheduled to vote this morning on the nomination of former voting section lawyer Hans Von Spakovsky to the State Advisory Committee for Virginia, reports TPMMuckraker.
The advisory committee is tasked with, as its name implies, advising the commission, which among other things, investigates complaints alleging that citizens are being deprived of their right to vote.
Spakovsky was actually hired by the commission last August as a consultant and temporary full-time employee at the behest of Commissioner Todd Gaziano. Gaziano told TPMMuckraker that he was also one of the people who recommended Spakovsky for the volunteer position with the advisory committee. Gaziano is the Director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Legal and Judicial Studies and has served in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.
Spakovsky, you may recall, was a sidekick to the controversial former head of the Civil Rights Division, Bradley Schlozman, who caused an uproar with his partisan hiring practices. President Bush gave Spakovsky a recess appointment to the Federal Election Commission, but once the recess appointment expired, the Senate refused to confirm him. As a matter of fact, it was then-Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) that put a hold on his Senate confirmation proceeding, prompting Gaziano to call Obama’s opposition “nothing more than fear-mongering with potential liberal voters.”
Career Voting Section lawyers led by Joseph Rich, section chief from 1999 to 2005, wrote to Senate Rules Committee chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and ranking member Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) alleging that Spakovsky “played a major role in the implementation of practices which injected partisan political factors into decision-making on enforcement matters and into the hiring process, and included repeated efforts to intimidate career staff.” You can find the letter here.