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.
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New Black Panther Party president Malik Zulu Shabazz hasn’t said much publicly about the Obama Justice Department’s dismissal last May of voter intimidation charges against his black power group, a decision that sparked conservative protests.
But last week in a podcast interview, Shabazz let loose – with a racially tinged rant against the Republicans he said are trying to turn the issue into campaign ads for this fall’s midterm elections.
“These right-wing white, red-faced, red-neck Republicans are attacking the hell out of the New Black Panther Party, and we’re organizing now to fight back,” Shabazz told the podcast host, a man who calls himself “Brother Gary” and hosts a show called Conscious Chats on Blogtalk Radio.
Shabazz singled out GOP Reps. Frank Wolf (Va.) and Lamar Smith (Texas) — two critics on the House Judiciary Committee — along with “Old Uncle Tom, Michael Steele, the black Negro who heads the Republican National Committee.”
“We gearing up for a showdown with this cracker,” Shabazz said, although it wasn’t clear to whom he was referring. “He keep talking – we going to Capitol Hill, we’re just gearing up right now, we’ll go to Capitol Hill.”
At issue is an incident at a majority-black polling place in Philadelphia in November 2008, where two members of the anti-white and anti-semitic fringe group stood in military-style garb, one of them carrying a night stick.
The Black Panther with a night stick left the premises after the police were called. The unarmed Black Panther stayed on; he held a Democratic poll watching certificate issued by the local board of elections.
A blogger hired by the local Republican Party made a video of the incident that was uploaded to YouTube. Then in January, in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration, the Department of Justice filed a civil lawsuit against Shabazz, his Washington, D.C.-based party, and the two New Black Panthers at the polling place, alleging voter intimidation.
No actual voters came forward to complain – the objections came from white Republican poll watchers. The suit was compiled by a Civil Rights Division lawyer named J. Christian Adams, who has a history of conservative advocacy and was hired during the Bush administration under process the DOJ Inspector General later concluded was improperly politicized.
In May, after the Black Panthers failed to contest the suit, the Barack Obama Justice Department dismissed most of the charges, obtaining an injunction against the New Black Panther member who’d carried the night stick.
But conservatives were outraged, with Reps. Wolf and Smith asking the DOJ’s Office of Professional Responsibility to investigate whether politics played a role in the decision to dismiss the case. And now the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which is dominated by conservatives, is also investigating.
In the podcast interview, Shabazz said that Republicans are trying to make it look as if the Obama administration and Attorney General Eric Holder were favoring the New Black Panther Party.
“People know that’s crazy as hell, they don’t owe us no favors,” said Shabazz. “If the Obama people thought we were their political allies, they would run in the other direction because we don’t give them no political help.”
One of the members of the party in Philadelphia, he added, “just happened to be a little too black or too strong” and “made a mistake” by bringing a weapon to the polls.
“They are beating these war drums – it’s constantly on the front page of the Washington Times [...] and I’m expecting some ads with the New Black Panther Party for midterm elections in 2010,” Shabazz said.
The relevant audio starts just before the 30-minute mark.
The chairman of the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense told The Associated Press that the now-dismissed civil lawsuit filed by the Justice Department against his organization had no merit because the party does not condone voter intimidation.
Malik Zulu Shabazz, speaking publicly for the first time about the controversy, said the DOJ made the right call in May when it dismissed the voter intimidation lawsuit. The civil charges stemmed from an incident in Philadelphia last November in which two members of the fringe group stood outside a polling place in military-style fatigues. One of them carried a nightstick.
Shabazz, who was not present in Philadelphia during the incident, told The AP that Republicans who say politics was behind the decision to dismiss the lawsuit are on a “political witch hunt” to discredit Attorney General Eric Holder. Shabazz called GOP efforts to draw attention to the matter “part of the overall war that the Republicans are waging against Eric Holder in general.”
The New Black Panther Party is celebrating its 20th anniversary during a national three-day summit that started Friday in Dallas. Members of the group have been recorded calling whites “cracker” and other derogatory terms. The New Black Panthers are not related to the 1960s Black Panther group founded in Oakland, Calif., by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton.
“I certainly would like black America and all the world to take a second look at the New Black Panther Party at this point and to understand that we’re sincerely trying to help our people,” Shabazz told The AP.
The Justice Department’s Office of Public Affairs had not comment on The AP story.
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House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Lamar Smith (R-Texas) cannot vote on presidential nominations. But Smith is trying to hold up Justice Department Civil Rights Division nominee Thomas Perez until DOJ gives the House member more information about the dismissal of voter-intimidation charges against members of the militant New Black Panthers.
Smith urged the Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee today to put a hold on Perez. The House Judiciary ranking member said the Justice Department responses to letters he sent on May 28, July 9 and July 17 about the dismissal have been “overly vague, raising concerns about possible political interference in this case.” Read all of the letters from Smith and DOJ here.
Smith and other House Republicans have alleged for months that politics played a role in the case dismissal. The Washington Times reported last month that Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli, a political appointee, approved a recommendation by Acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King to drop voter intimidation charges against members of the militant New Black Panthers.
But King, who’s been acting head of the division since January, told Perrelli she had “concerns” about the case during a regular review meeting, The Times reported. King recommended some of the charges be dismissed, and Perrelli agreed. Read our previous report about The Times article here.
The Justice Department has denied the accusations made by Smith. DOJ spokesperson Tracy Schmaler told Main Justice today “top career attorneys in the Civil Rights Division” made the decision that some of the charges be dismissed.
In a four-page letter sent July 13, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich said DOJ officials will meet with Smith to further discuss the matter and he explained how DOJ handled each of the New Black Panthers members listed in the initial DOJ complaint.
The complaint said Malik Zulu Shabazz, Minister King Samir Shabazz and Jerry Jackson brandished weapons and used “coercion, threats and intimidation” to harass voters, both black and white, at a Philadelphia polling place last Nov. 4. The defendants wore “military-style uniforms” including black berets and combat boots, the complaint said.
The Justice Department essentially won the case when the defendants failed to contest it. But DOJ decided to file for dismissal of the case instead of getting a default judgment. The dismissal did not extend to one defendant, King Samir Shabazz. Read the DOJ’s filing here. Read our original report on the “controversy” here.
“We assure you that the Department is committed to comprehensive and vigorous enforcement of both the civil and criminal provisions of federal law that prohibit voter intimidation,” Weich said in the letter. “We continue to work with voters, communities, and local law enforcement to ensure that every American can vote free from intimidation, coercion or threats.”
Smith also requested in the July 9 letter that the DOJ Office of Inspector General investigate the matter. Inspector General Glenn Fine wrote in a July 21 letter that he forwarded Smith’s request to the DOJ Office of Professional Responsibility. Fine said OPR — not OIG — was the appropriate office to handle Smith’s request.
Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have not jumped on the dismissal like Smith has, but they have not been too keen on Perez.
Perez was reported out of committee June 4 by a 17-2 vote. Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) were the only senators to oppose the Civil Rights Division nominee in committee.
Sessions, the ranking member of the committee, called into question last month Perez’s prior work on the board of CASA de Maryland, an influential immigrant advocacy group that has come under fire by anti-immigration groups.
Coburn said last month that Perez, former director of the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has supported providing translators to illegal immigrants who are receiving medical care. The Oklahoma senator, a medical doctor who operated on people without U.S. citizenship, said providing illegal immigrants with interpreters would “wreck health care.”
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said Coburn and Sessions got a “much clearer view” of the Civil Rights Division nominee from a meeting they had with Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Perez. Sessions said it was “a good meeting.”
A Republican spokesperson for the Senate Judiciary Committee did not respond to a request for comment.
Joe Palazzolo contributed to this report.
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