The Washington Post editorial board on Friday criticized Attorney General Eric Holder for his response to the oil spill, calling his announcement that the Justice Department had opened a criminal probe into the matter “odd” and “discomfiting.”
Last month, Holder traveled to the Gulf coast and, during a press conference, said the DOJ had opened a criminal investigation of the spill. Holder declined to say which companies were being investigated.
The announcement was unusual: Justice Department officials almost always decline to confirm or deny the existence of a criminal investigation. According to the U.S. Attorneys manual — the document that governs the behavior of DOJ attorneys in the field — prosecutors can only confirm probes when officials determine that an extraordinary event justifies public acknowledgment.
“In matters that have already received substantial publicity, or about which the community needs to be reassured that the appropriate law enforcement agency is investigating the incident, or where release of information is necessary to protect the public interest, safety, or welfare, comments about or confirmation of an ongoing investigation may need to be made,” the manual states. “In these unusual circumstances, the involved investigative agency will consult and obtain approval from the United States Attorney or Department Division handling the matter prior to disseminating any information to the media.”
One week before Holder announced the probe, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich wrote Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) that “consistent with long-standing policy, we neither confirm nor deny the existence of such an investigation,” The Post noted.
In addition, the editorial also was critical of Holder’s appearance at a meeting between White House officials and representatives from BP.
Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, who lead the White House negotiations that resulted in a multibillion-dollar victims’ compensation fund, was “perfectly capable of ensuring that the fund agreement passed legal muster,” the editorial said, and Holder’s presence “inevitably raised the specter of the criminal probe — and the possibility that it could be used to pressure BP on the size and terms of the fund.”
Administration officials pointed out that Holder attended with other Cabinet secretaries and left the meeting before substantive negotiations had begun.
Because he handles both criminal and civil aspects of an issue, the Attorney General “must take great care to avoid even the appearance of conflict,” wrote the editorial board.
“Mr. Holder may not have crossed that line in the gulf oil matter, but he has come close.”
Read the full editorial here.
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Justice Department employees packed the Great Hall on Wednesday morning to give First Lady Michelle Obama a rousing greeting as she thanked them for their service.
Since her husband took office last year, Obama has visited several government agencies to thank federal employees for their service.
DOJ staffers filed into the standing-room-only Great Hall as early as 7:30 a.m. Others took up posts on the third-floor balcony above the auditorium. When Obama emerged from the rear of the stage just after 11:30 a.m., a sea of cameras and phones sprang up from the crowd to capture the moment. Later, shrieks rang out when Obama approached the crowd to shake hands with career attorneys and top-ranking DOJ officials.
The greeting was so warm, in fact, that Attorney General Eric Holder offered the First Lady a job at DOJ.
“I can tell you that, like the president, she has a brilliant legal mind,” Holder said. “I have been so impressed by her legal skills that I’m going to make her an offer — right now — to join the best lawyers in the world, right here at DOJ.”
The First Lady praised both the Attorney General and the work of the employees of the Department of Justice.
“One of the privileges of being First Lady has been the opportunity to visit so many agencies over the past year or so so that I can thank all of you, really, for the hard work and dedication that you’ve all put in,” Obama said. “You put in long hours. And a lot of people look at the President, they look at your boss, and they say, well, you’re working hard. But the truth is — and we all know this — you all are putting in that kind of time as well. You’re making sacrifices. You miss time with your families. And often, you do it without getting any recognition from anyone.
“So I want to let you know how much that we value everything that you’re doing here, however long you’ve been doing it,” she added.
Obama also gave a shout-out to those who work outside Justice Department headquarters — Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives employees, FBI agents, U.S. Marshals and the U.S. Attorneys.
Justice Department employees Celeste Simmons, Janean Bentley, and Cee Cee Simpson Allaway said they were the first three to arrive at 7:30 a.m.
“It was worth it, I would do it again anytime,” said Simmons, an investigator in the Civil Rights Division’s Disability Rights Section who has been with the department for 15 years.
They were joined by Sabrina Jenkins, a fellow employee in the Disability Rights Section, and Angela Parks of the Criminal Division. All said they were thrilled to meet and shake hands with the First Lady and showed off pictures they took of Obama.
Joining the First Lady and the Attorney General on stage were some of the Justice Department’s longest serving employees, including Jack Keeney, Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Criminal Division, who at age 88 still holds an office at DOJ headquarters.
The other long-serving employees on stage were: Civil Division trial attorney Marshall T. Golding, who joined DOJ in April 1957; FBI employee Earl F. Hostetler Jr., who began his career in June 1961; Justice Management Division security specialist Barbara J. Russell, who began her career with the Department of Justice in July 1961; Civil Division legal assistant William H. Wiggins, who has been with DOJ since December 1963; FBI telephone operator Mary C. Smith, who entered the FBI in June 1964; FBI support services technician Marcia M. Taylor, who began her FBI career in September 1965; Civil Division mail clerk Eugene W. Crane, who started his career at DOJ in January 1966; Civil Division Appellate Staff Director Robert E. Kopp, who has served since August 1966; Justice Management Division Procurement Analyst Patricia Ann Belcher; Civil Rights Analyst Myra D. Wastaff; and Senior Counsel for Appeals in the Criminal Division Sidney Glazer.
Officials seated in front of the crowd included Acting Deputy Attorney General Gary Grindler, Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, and Assistant Attorneys General Tony West, Christine Varney and Ronald Weich.
Story updated at 4:45 p.m.
Attorney General Eric Holder and First Lady Michelle Obama’s remarks are available below.
Good morning. Thank you all for being here today to help me welcome our nation’s First Lady – and my good friend – to the Department of Justice.
In the recent past, including many miles on the campaign trail, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know our First Lady. And I can tell you that, like the President, she has a brilliant legal mind. I have been so impressed by her legal skills that I’m going to make her an offer- right now- to join the best lawyers in the world, right here at DOJ.
I’ve also learned that she has a deep appreciation for the work and many responsibilities of the Justice Department. But what’s impressed me most, and what I admire most about her, is her commitment to justice.
Many of you already know her extraordinary story – that she grew up in a small apartment on the South Side of Chicago and, with hard work, determination and the support of a loving family, made her way to Princeton University, then Harvard Law School, then on to one of the nation’s premier law firms. And she decided long ago – long before she became First Lady – that she wanted to harness the power of the law to generate positive social change and build a more just society.
That commitment took her in unexpected directions. As she once put it – and I know many of you feel this way, too – she realized that she, “wanted to have a career motivated by passion and not just money.” And so she built on her legal training to serve communities, assemble volunteers, and – despite the pay cut – spend her time inspiring young people to enter public service themselves.
And did I mention that it was because of the law that she met a certain summer associate – and her law firm mentee – who would change her life? She has said that she, and I quote, “wasn’t expecting much” of the young Harvard Law student who everyone else was raving about. But shortly after they met, our President summoned all the charm he could muster – and all the moves he had – and apparently it worked. From that time on, our First Lady has been, not only a distinguished attorney, executive, and community leader, but also, in her husband’s words, “the rock” of her family. Indeed, she does seem to do it all: lawyer, advocate, visionary and, above all, the mother of two wonderful daughters, a supportive and engaged wife, and a wonderful daughter herself.
Over the past year and a half, the First Lady has also become “the rock” of our nation – a committed, and already accomplished, force for positive change, especially for young people. Last month, I had the privilege to join her in Detroit, where she kicked off a day of mentoring and called on young students to work hard and, just as important, to give back. And her “Let’s Move!” campaign to eliminate childhood obesity is already creating a healthier – and, in a very real sense, more just – America.
But her commitment and her tireless efforts don’t stop there. She also works to support military families, to serve as a role model for working women, to promote the arts and arts education, and – of course – to continue to make sure that my boss still takes out the trash. That can’t still be true!
When I think about the First Lady, I’m struck by the fact that, though I’ve only known her for a few years, it feels like so many. That’s the kind of friend our speaker is. From the day we met, she has made me feel welcome and at home. And so in that same spirit, I’d like us to welcome her to our home here at the Department of Justice. Ladies and gentlemen – the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama.
MRS. OBAMA: Thank you. Thank you so much. (Applause.) Thank you, everybody. Thank you. Such a warm and wonderful welcome. I am thrilled to be here.
I want to start by thanking our outstanding Attorney General, Eric Holder, your boss, for that very kind introduction, and also for the wonderful work that he’s doing here at the Department of Justice. He is — I could say the same accolades as he said about me. He’s just been a phenomenal support, not just to the President but to me personally.
As he mentioned, he joined me along with celebrities and other people from the administration in Detroit to do some very important mentoring in Detroit. And he was just amazing. I mean, you know how busy he is. And my view is that if this man can take the time out to fly and spend a day talking to young people, I mean, sitting down at a table with kids, and talking about how they can pursue their dreams, how he can use his own story to show them that they can reach for passions that maybe they thought they never could, that he, in his own role, serves as a role model. If he can do that, then we all can do that.
And I know that there’s so many of you here who are following that lead. And I’m grateful to him and I’m grateful to all of you for serving in that role. So we have to give him an incredible thank you. (Applause.)
I’m told that Eric started out as a 25-year-old law graduate — school graduate working in the Public Integrity Section here at DOJ. You were 25?
ATTORNEY GENERAL HOLDER: That was five years ago.
MRS. OBAMA: Five years ago. (Laughter.) And even though he’s been around the block a few times since then — (laughter) — only five years — he’s never lost that sense of responsibility that comes from working to uphold our highest legal principles. It’s a responsibility that all of you share, and one that some of you have been shouldering for quite a while, I understand. That’s why I want to take a moment to recognize the folks here on the stage with me. These are some of the longest-serving employees here at the Department of Justice. I don’t know the numbers here, but they’ve been here for quite some time, and I want to take some time to give them a round of applause for their dedication. (Applause.)
It’s just wonderful to see people who have made commitments for decades to government service, and it’s important for the world to see, particularly young people, to see how people are building and have built lifetimes here serving the broader community.
And I know that even though we’re here at Main Justice, I also want to recognize the men and women who serve as the faces of this agency in communities all across the country: the FBI and the ATF agents. (Applause.) The U.S. Marshals and the hardworking folks at the U.S. Attorneys offices who are on the ground every day — yay, yes — (applause) — they’re keeping us safe and protecting our most basic rights.
And when I travel, one of the great things I get to do is usually see the U.S. Attorneys on the ground. So our congratulations and thanks goes out to everyone.
One of the privileges of being First Lady has been the opportunity to visit so many agencies over the past year or so so that I can thank all of you, really, for the hard work and dedication that you’ve all put in. You put in long hours. And a lot of people look at the President, they look at your boss, and they say, well, you’re working hard. But the truth is — and we all know this — you all are putting in that kind of time as well. You’re making sacrifices. You miss time with your families. And often, you do it without getting any recognition from anyone.
So I want to let you know how much that we value everything that you’re doing here, however long you’ve been doing it, because I know we have a lot of newbies here, folks who are just joining the department as well. Yay, all right, let’s give them a round of applause, too. (Applause.)
So that’s one of the reasons I’ve been doing these visits, to make sure that you all know that even in the heat of change and all the work that goes on here, that we haven’t forgotten the work that you do and the sacrifices that you make.
These visits, though, also help me get a better understanding of what’s happening in some of these agencies, to listen, to learn about your work and to help spotlight the difference that you make in the lives of so many Americans, because when I show up, there are cameras that usually come, and I think it’s important for the people around the country to know that government is working hard for the American people and that it’s made up of everyday Americans who are making sacrifices on their behalf.
And I have to admit that I’m especially excited to be here at DOJ because we have a lot in common, many of us here. As many of you know, long before I lived in the White House, I worked in Chicago, and I did a little law thing. (Laughter.) I decided to study law for some of the same reasons many of you did. Number one, math was really hard. (Laughter.) And as my mother said, I talked a lot — (laughter) — and could write pretty good. But it’s also because I’ve seen the power that law has to change people’s lives in a very real and meaningful way. And I knew that lawyers had the ability to help turn words on a page into justice in the world –- to keep a neighborhood safe; to keep a family in their home; to leave our children a world that is a little more equal and a little more just.
And I also — as Eric mentioned — I met this guy named Barack Obama while I was studying law. (Laughter.) Yes, he was my mentee — a summer associate when I was a first-year associate. So that was a nice little perk from my law career. (Laughter.)
And here at DOJ, you all represent the ideals that drew us all to this business in the first place: those principles of equality, fairness and the rule of law. Your responsibility is not to a particular party — and that’s important for people to understand — or to a particular administration or to a President. You work for the American people. You do battle every day on behalf of the most vulnerable among us. And you touch the lives of virtually every American in ways large and small -– even if they don’t realize it.
For a department that started out with a single, part-time employee in 1789, the workload here at DOJ has really never stopped growing. And I know you all are feeling that right now.
Whether it’s keeping our nation safe from terrorist attacks, or bringing our most hardened criminals to justice, protecting consumers or safeguarding our civil rights, your work has never been more important that it is today.
That’s especially true in the wake of the worst environmental disaster that we’ve ever faced here in this nation. And I know that the Attorney General and several members of the leadership team have traveled to the Gulf, and many folks here in this agency are working tirelessly to ensure that accountability is going on, that we’re protecting taxpayer dollars, and that we’re helping those affected by the oil spill really get back on their feet.
And people need to know that the Department of Justice is at the center of that work. But it’s not just the work that you do that makes this place so special. It’s what you all bring to the work that you do. It’s the passion, and the persistence and the energy that you bring to your cases.
And I know to be here, taking pay cuts as many of you do, you’ve got to be doing it because of passion because all of you all would be at a firm somewhere if it didn’t mean something to you.
But that’s true whether you’re an attorney, a paralegal, a librarian, a support staffer — truly, the dedication that you’ve all shown is extraordinary. And I’m proud — very proud — of the work that you’ve done, and I’m extremely grateful for what you’re doing every day.
And it is not an easy job. That I know as well. But the fact that so many of you have stuck around for so long really says something about the culture of this agency.
Administrations, as you know, can come and go, but the pride that you put into your work, it never fades. As Attorney General Holder likes to say, working here isn’t just about making a living. And that’s so important for young people out there to know and to see. These jobs, it’s not about earning the dollar; it’s about making a difference in someone’s life.
And this group really takes those words to heart. I’m told that in the first six months of this year, your attorneys have taken on 20 pro bono cases -– from custody battles and landlord-tenant disputes, to domestic violence and personal injury cases. Pro bono, for those of you who don’t know, is completely free legal service.
And 50 of your attorneys, I understand, have staffed legal clinics right here in D.C., helping to write wills, to file taxes and to do other important work for members right here in this community who couldn’t otherwise afford it.
In the end, that’s really what the Department of Justice is all about. That’s really what the field of law is supposed to be about. You all help make the promise of our laws a reality for every single American regardless of their race, their standing or their political affiliation.
From the Great Hall of the Supreme Court to a folding table in a legal clinic, you help our families secure the protection that they need and the rights that they deserve. And you do it with a level of fairness and compassion that stands as an example to us all.
So for that reason, I’m here to show you, along with the rest of America, our gratitude, our admiration. These are going to be tough times. And we’re going to need every one of you to buckle up and work even harder. But it’s easier to have that conversation here because you all know what hard work means. You all know what sacrifice means.
And it’s important for us to share those values with the next generation. We need to replace you all. We need to start working on the next generation of staffers and attorneys and librarians and paralegals who are going to fill these seats in decades to come. And they’re going to do that because of the work that they see you doing. They’re going to do that because of the pride that you take in your work. We are the role models for the next generation.
So we are grateful for your work. And I just look forward to coming out there and shaking a few hands.
So thank you, thank you so much. (Applause.)
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The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Prisons wants to begin hiring staff to run the Thomson prison facility in Illinois where the Obama administration plans to to hold Guantanamo Bay detainees, a top Justice Department official said Monday.
Even as the likelihood that Guantanamo Bay detainees will set foot in the facility dwindles, that appraisals of the property are underway and the Bureau of Prisons is committed to acquiring the facility this year, Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs Ronald Weich wrote in a letter to members of the Illinois congressional delegation.
“BOP plans to make certain modifications to the facility and hire and train a full complement of staff while the Defense Department continues to work with Congress to obtain authorization and funding for a portion of the Thomson facility,” Weich wrote in the letter dated June 21.
Bureau of Prisons Chief Harley Lappin had told the delegation that the Obama administration is moving forward with the plans. The text of the letter was posted online by the offices of Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Illinois Governor Pat Quinn.
Weich wrote that appraisals of the property are underway and the representatives from the bureau have met with local officials and prospective job applicants. Bureau of Prisons officials plan to attend events at Illinois community colleges over the coming weeks where they will take job applications and run resume workshops, Weich told the members of Congress.
House lawmakers recently took steps to block the use of federal funds for the modification of Thomson, but that does not prohibit the use of federal funding to purchase the location.
The text of the letter is embedded below.
June 21, 2010
The Honorable Richard J. Durbin
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510
The Honorable Donald A. Manzullo
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515
Dear Senator Durbin and Congressman Manzullo:
We understand that Harley Lappin, the Director of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), recently briefed both of you and your staffs on the significant progress being made by BOP and the State of Illinois in their efforts to complete multiple steps required at the federal and state levels in order to purchase the Thomson Correctional Center. This letter reaffirms the Administration’s commitment to acquiring the facility this year and provides additional details about measures that have been taken to date and those that will be taken in the coming months. We are also forwarding a copy of this letter to Governor Quinn in light of the active, ongoing efforts of Illinois state officials on this issue.
As Director Lappin stated in his briefings to you, multiple appraisals of the facility by the federal government and the state are in progress. In addition, officials from BOP’s Capacity Planning, Facility Activation, and Site Selection Office and BOP’s North Central Regional Office have been meeting with local officials and prospective job applicants throughout the region to discuss staffing needs for operating the institution. These include meetings in Fulton, Illinois on April 21, Moline, Illinois on May 4, Freeport, Illinois on May 5, and Davenport, Iowa on May 6. Additional meetings are planned this month for application and resume workshops at Sauk Valley Community College and Black Hawk Community College.
In response to Congressman Manzullo’s request on May 24, 2010, that BOP “separate the GITMO portion of the Thomson plan and proceed with the full utilization of the Thomson Correctional Facility as a stand-alone federal prison,” we understand that Director Lappin explained that BOP will have access to the entire facility after it is acquired. BOP plans to make certain modifications to the facility and hire and train a full complement of staff while the Defense Department continues to work with Congress to obtain authorization and funding for a portion of the Thomson facility.
Building and maintaining strong relationships with communities that surround BOP institutions is an important part of our operations. Thank you for your ongoing support, and we look forward to continuing to discuss with you our plans for activating and operating the facility. Please do not hesitate to contact this office if we may be of further assistance with this or any other matter.
Assistant Attorney General
cc: The Honorable Pat Quinn
Governor of the State of Illinois
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The Justice Department on Monday formally responded to questions posed to Attorney General Eric Holder following a November 18 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legislative Affairs Ron Weich sent answers to questions to Judiciary Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Members often submit written questions to witnesses after a hearing to follow-up on topics.
The 120-page response, which addresses questions from 10 senators on a range of issues, is embedded below.
The Justice Department intends to acquire a prison in Thomson, Ill., even if Congress won’t let the Obama administration move Guantanamo Bay detainees there, a DOJ official said Thursday.
Assistant Attorney General Ron Weich wrote in a letter to Rep. Donald Manzullo (R-Ill.), whose district includes Thomson, that the federal prison system is experiencing a “critical overcrowding problem” and is in “urgent need” of more high security facilities.
The fiscal year 2011 DOJ budget request calls for $237 million to purchase, set up and run the Thomson Correctional Center, according to Weich. But the budget request doesn’t say that the prison will hold Guantanamo Bay detainees, who President Barack Obama has pledged to move from the detention facility in order to close the U.S. military prison in Cuba.
“[T]he President has directed the Department of Justice to acquire the facility to fulfill both the goals of reducing federal prison overcrowding and transferring a limited number of detainees out of Guantanamo,” Weich wrote. “The Department has made clear, however, that it would be seeking to purchase the facility in Thomson even if detainees were not being considered for the transfer there.”
Republicans, including Manzullo, have discouraged the Obama administration from transferring Guantanamo Bay detainees to the prison.
Manzullo has said he supports the repurposing of the Illinois state prison to house more prisoners in the federal prison system, but not for holding Guantanamo Bay detainees.
“The federal prison system is way overcrowded and is in dire need of more space, and Thomson offers an ideal solution,” Manzullo said in a statement last November. “Moving Gitmo north to Thomson, Illinois, should not be part of the package, especially since the administration faces a huge hurdle in getting congressional approval for the terrorists to be detained in America.”
It will likely be several more months before the DOJ would be able to secure most of the funds requested for the Thomson prison.
The House Appropriations Commerce, Justice and science subcommittee held its first hearing on the DOJ Bureau of Prisons budget Thursday. It may take several more months before funding is allocated; the DOJ budget for fiscal year 2010 was not enacted until mid-December.
The DOJ can ask for some funds to start on security upgrades before the DOJ budget is enacted, according to the Tribune Washington Bureau, which first reported the story. But the Illinois state legislature must still approve the sale of the prison before the DOJ can begin work on the facility.
The Justice Department is trying to ease fears among minority groups about the confidentiality of information provided for the U.S. Census, The Washington Post’s Federal Eye reported today.
In a letter to the leaders of the congressional Asian Pacific, Black and Hispanic caucuses dated Wednesday, Assistant Attorney General Ron Weich said that information-sharing provisions in the Patriot Act would not force Census officials to turn over personal information for law enforcement purposes.
“The long history of congressional enactments protecting [Census] information from such disclosure, as well as the established precedents of the courts and this department, supports the view that if Congress intended to override these protections, it would say so clearly and explicitly,” Weich wrote.
Civil rights activists applauded the clarification, according to the Federal Eye.
“As we have been going around doing our outreach to local community leaders — whether religious leaders or community activists — many people have been asking whether the Census is confidential,” Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, told the blog. “The Patriot Act has been passed since the last Census, so what we wanted to do was eliminate any doubt that the Patriot Act has an impact, and it does not.”
The census forms this year will ask 10 questions including a person’s name, gender, age, ethnicity or race, the number of people in the household and their relationships with one another, and if they own or rent. The questionnaires also will request a phone number that census officials can contact if they need to clarify a response.
The Census Bureau, a component of the Commerce Department, has spent millions 0f dollars to reach out to minorities who might be skeptical about participating in the Census, according to the Federal Eye.
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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When the George W. Bush Justice Department filed a civil complaint against members of the New Black Panther Party in January, it invoked a rarely used provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act to allege voter intimidation.
It was the second time the Bush DOJ filed suit under Section 11 (b) of the landmark civil rights legislation – both times targeting black defendants.
The common denominator in these unusual applications of Section 11 (b) is J. Christian Adams, a line attorney at the Justice Department who compiled the Black Panthers case and also worked on a 2005 federal lawsuit against black officials in Mississippi accused of discriminating against whites.
Adams is a career Voting Section lawyer. He is also a foot soldier in the conservative movement, hired into the Justice Department during the Bush administration under a process the department’s Inspector General concluded was improperly politicized.
Adams’s background helps explain how a relatively minor incident in Philadelphia during the 2008 presidential election involving two members of an anti-white fringe group blossomed into a political controversy for the Obama administration.
Adams previously had volunteered for the Republican National Lawyers Association, an off-shoot of the Republican National Committee that trains lawyers to fight on the often racially tinged frontlines of voting rights, and had been a Republican poll watcher in Florida for the 2004 presidential campaign.
As a Virginia lawyer, he once filed an ethics complaint in Florida against the brother of Hillary Clinton, and reviewed a manuscript of a book that questions the contemporary need for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act that he is tasked with enforcing.
More recently, Adams asked a question at a meeting of the conservative Federalist Society in Washington that appeared skeptical of affirmative action, wrote a piece for the American Spectator that likened President Barack Obama’s world view to that of Nazi appeasers and argued on a conservative blogging network that health care reform is a threat to liberty.
Hired in 2005 by Bradley Schlozman, a Bush-era political appointee who drove out veteran Civil Rights Division attorneys perceived to be liberal, Adams appears to be one of the “right-thinking Americans” with conservative affiliations that Schlozman improperly seeded throughout the bureaucracy.
Civil service protections make his removal difficult, and Adams now is emblematic of the challenges facing Attorney General Eric Holder and Civil Rights Division chief Thomas Perez, who have vowed to “restore” the division to its historic mission of enforcing anti-discrimination laws protecting minorities, while adapting to new challenges.
Republican members of the House asked for an investigation into whether politics played a role in the dismissal of the case and asked GOP senators over the summer to delay Perez’s confirmation over the matter.
When asked about Adams’s role in the Black Panther case, Perez said in a briefing with reporters last week: ”I don’t want to get in the business of speculating as to why somebody brought something at what point.”
The complaint Adams drafted was also signed by Christopher Coates, chief of the Voting Section, and then-acting Assistant Attorney General Grace Chung Becker, a Bush political appointee who failed to win Senate confirmation over Democrats’ concerns she wasn’t committed to enforcing anti-discrimination laws to protect minorities.
“We clearly communicate our expectations [to Civil Rights Division attorneys]. If you meet those expectations that are transparent, then we want you to continue as long as you want to be there,” Perez added, in another session with reporters after a speech at the National Press Club last Friday. “And if you don’t, we hold you accountable.”
Adams compiled the lawsuit against the Black Panthers, two of whom stood outside a majority-black Philadelphia polling place in November 2008 in military-style fatigues, one of them carrying a nightstick. After the Obama DOJ dismissed of the most of the complaint in May, outraged conservatives called for investigations into whether politics played an improper role in the decision.
“That looks more like some sort of street fight than it does a polling place,” David Norcross, chairman of the Republican National Lawyers Association, said of a widely viewed video showing the incident.
Adams referred questions about his casework to the DOJ’s Office of Public Affairs. A spokesman said the public affairs office doesn’t normally provide a log of cases on which a particular attorney has worked.
A review of documents on the Civil Rights Division Web site indicates that more recently, Adams worked on complaint filed in March under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, under the Obama administration, alleging the town of Lake Park, Florida, denied black voters an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice. In October, the Southern District of Florida federal court entered a consent decree and judgment changing the way the town elected its commissioners.
Turning the Voting Rights Act on its head
The Section 11 (b) civil authority under which the Black Panthers lawsuit was filed is rarely used, since criminal acts of voter intimidation are usually referred for prosecution.
The first known 11 (b) case since the early days of the Voting Rights Act came in 1992, when the government filed suit against North Carolina Republicans and the campaign of then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) for sending threatening postcards to 100,000 mostly black voters with misleading information about election laws.*
There were no more 11 (b) cases until 2005. Then, the Bush administration filed a voter intimidation lawsuit against black officials in Noxubee County, Miss., alleging systematic discrimination against white voters. It marked the first time the DOJ had used authority of the Voting Rights Act to allege voting discrimination by blacks against whites.
While the government won the Noxubee case and even Bush administration critics agree it had merit, they argue that pursing the case was a misuse of limited department resources. Critics also say the manner in which the Bush DOJ used section 11 (b) turned the spirit of the Voting Rights Act on its head. The 1965 act was passed amid incidents of beatings and harassment in the South by white mobs and Ku Klux Klan members against people demonstrating for black voting rights.
“Sadly, the only two [section 11 (b)] cases that have been brought by the [Bush] department have been on behalf of whites,” J. Gerald Hebert, a former acting chief of the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division, told Main Justice.
The Government Accountability Office, meantime, recently highlighted a Section 11 (b) voter intimidation case that the Bush DOJ chose not to pursue. The case involved allegations that officials in an unidentified state had intimidated black voters.
The GAO didn’t give further details, but Perez said in recent congressional testimony the division had opened an investigation into the incident cited in the report. He declined to elaborate, citing the ongoing probe.
Hebert said in order to pursue a voter intimidation case, there should be depositions from voters who felt intimidated and the actions should be shown to be part of a larger campaign.
The Black Panther complaint provided little evidence to support the government’s allegation that the group conducted a coordinated campaign to intimidate voters, Obama Department of Justice officials have told Republican lawmakers.
“Frankly, the Philadelphia case [against the New Black Panthers] was on shaky ground from the beginning and was largely, I think, filed by the previous administration for the new administration to have to clean up, putting them in a difficult position,” said Hebert, a critic of the Bush administration’s management of the Justice Department who has written extensively about Section 11(b) for his current employer, the Campaign Legal Center.
Spakovsky: ‘political hacks” at DOJ
So far, no voters registered in the majority-black precinct in Philadelphia where the incident occurred have come forward publicly to say they were intimidated. The complaints have come instead from white Republican poll watchers.
The conservative-dominated U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is investigating the DOJ’s handling of the Black Panther case, and Adams has fought to obtain permission to assist its investigation, over objections from his superiors at the Justice Department.
Yet conservatives have raised no questions about the background or possible motivations of Adams, who compiled the case. Instead they have attacked the career DOJ lawyers who recommended dismissing it.
“Those two lawyers, Steve Rosenbaum and Loretta King, are two of the worst political hacks to be found in the career ranks of the Civil Rights Division,” wrote former Bush Civil Rights Division official Hans A. von Spakovsky in an opinion piece for National Review Online.
House Judiciary Committee members Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.) have written letters to the DOJ asking whether it “improperly considered partisan politics” in dismissing the Black Panther case.
Spakovsky worked closely with Schlozman. He helped oversee the Noxubee case in Mississippi and assisted in the controversial purge of veteran lawyers in the division perceived to be liberal. The Democratic-controlled Senate in 2007 refused to confirm Spakovsky as a Federal Election Commission member.
Spakovsky has also worked at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights for commissioner Todd Gaziano, an official at the conservative Heritage Foundation who’s been the driving force behind the push to investigate the Black Panthers matter.
Von Spakovsky told Main Justice said he hadn’t spoken with Adams about the case. “I know Christian just like I know all the lawyers, but I have not talked to him about the case,” he said.
The Obama DOJ, he added, has “not offered any reason to justify its dismissal, which leads you to the obvious conclusion that there were political and other reasons for doing it.”
In fact, Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs Ron Weich has outlined the reasons for the dismissal in letters to Republican members of Congress. Read his response here (scroll down).
I’m Just a Media Guy
On election day in November 2008, a call came into the Philadelphia office of the John McCain for President campaign. Two black men in military-style fatigues and berets were standing outside a polling station. One of them was carrying a nightstick.
Stephen Robert Morse, a young freelance journalist who’d been hired by the local Republican Party to document potential irregularities at the polls, jumped in a car and sped to the apartment building at 1221 Fairmount Street, in a majority black neighborhood of Philadelphia.
“Dude, you got my back?” Morse said to a companion. He walked toward the two members of the New Black Panthers and began speaking for his video.
“Hi, I’m here at 1221 Fairmount in Philadelphia and there’s a guy with a billy club right here,” Morse said. “So, do we have any problems here? What’s going on? Everything okay?”
“Everything’s fine,” said Minister King Samir Shabazz, the Black Panther holding the night stick.
“Okay, I’m just, I’m just making sure,” Morse said.
Shabazz asked Morse to identify himself.
“I’m just a media guy,” Morse said. “I’m with the University of Pennsylvania. Who are you with? Sorry?”
“Ah … security,” Shabazz said. “Just wondering why everybody’s taking pictures, that’s all.”
“I think it may be a little intimidating that you have a stick in your hand, that’s all. I mean, that’s a weapon. I mean, I’m a concerned citizen,” Morse said.
“So are we. That’s why we’re here.”
“Okay, but you have a nightstick.”
“So what? You have a camera phone.”
“I have a camera phone, which is not a weapon,” Morse said.
Only 34 whites live in Precinct 4 in Philadelphia out of a total population of 970, according to census data. But there was a sea of white faces there that day, mainly Republican lawyers who’d come to monitor the polling station in what, since the disputed 2000 presidential election, has become an election-day ritual for both parties.
One of the white Republican poll watchers called police, and the nightstick-wielding Shabazz was shooed away without apparent incident. The other Black Panther, Jerry Jackson, who’d been issued a poll watching certificate by the Philadelphia County Board of Elections, remained.
Although both Shabazz and Jackson had been recorded in an earlier National Geographic documentary calling whites “cracker” and other derogatory terms, no racial epithets were recorded on Morse’s video in Philadelphia.
Then Fox News arrived.
Fox reporter Rick Leventhal interviewed an unidentified Republican poll watcher who told of a more racially charged scene.
The Black Panthers “told us not to come outside, because a black man is going to win this election no matter what,” the unidentified Republican poll watcher said on the Fox camera. “So, as I came back outside to see, the nightstick turns around and says, you know, ‘We’re tired of white supremacy,’ and starts tapping the nightstick in his hand.”
Fox reporter Rick Leventhal said: “The Black Panthers were there to intimidate white voters from coming to this polling location?”
“Or anyone who’s in their way. You know, I don’t know. A guy standing in front of a polling place with a night stick is a factor for all voters. Maybe little old ladies don’t want to walk through that,” the Republican poll watcher said.
The video that Morse made was uploaded to YouTube through a Web site called electionjournal.org, run by a Republican operative named Mike Roman.
Later that evening, Barack Obama won the election, becoming the nation’s first African-American president.
On YouTube, viewers started clicking Morse’s video. It eventually logged more than a 1.2 million views.
Republican poll watchers complain
In January, 13 days before Obama’s inauguration, the Civil Rights Division filed a civil complaint alleging that Shabazz and Jackson hurled “racial insults” and threats at both black and white individuals in Philadelphia, and “made menacing and intimidating gestures” directed at “individuals who were present to aid voters.”
Those “individuals who were present to aid voters” appear to be a reference to the white Republican poll watchers who reported the incident and gave interviews to Fox News. So far, no voters of any race who were registered in that precinct have come forward publicly to say they were intimidated.
The New Black Panther Party made an easy target for Republicans. Characterized as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Shabazz and Jackson had been videotaped by National Geographic for a documentary calling whites “cracker” and other denigrating terms.
The black separatist group takes its inspiration from, but is not related to, the 1960s Black Panthers, the original “black power” movement.
Republicans have suggested the Justice Department dismissed the case because the New Black Panther Party helped get Obama elected. “It just smacks of some kind of a deal or a thank-you payback,” said Norcross of the Republican National Lawyers Association.
But a review of Shabazz’s comments before the election indicate he wasn’t an Obama fan.
“[Obama] is a puppet on a string. I don’t support no black man running for white politics. I will not vote for who will be the next slavemaster,” he told the Philadelphia Daily News days before the election, according to Politico.
The New Black Panther Party could not be reached for comment.
Washington Times “Exclusive”
After the Black Panthers failed to contest the lawsuit earlier this year, a default judgment was entered. The case then went to then-acting Civil Rights Division chief Loretta King for review.
A career DOJ lawyer, King decided one incident didn’t constitute an orchestrated campaign or pattern to deny voting rights, the usual criteria for deploying federal resources in litigation.
She also had concerns about seeking legal action in part based on how the men were dressed, and noted that one of them – Jackson – held an official poll watching certificate, giving him a reason to be on the premises. She recommended dismissal, a decision approved by her supervisor, Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, an Obama political appointee.
The DOJ sought and won an injunction against Shabazz prohibiting him from carrying a weapon at polling stations through Nov. 15, 2012.
On May 29, the Washington Times published an “exclusive” that said Justice Department “political appointees overruled career lawyers” in dismissing the case.
“Career lawyers pursued the case for months, including obtaining an affidavit from a prominent 1960s civil rights activist who witnessed the confrontation and described it as ‘the most blatant form of voter intimidation’ that he had seen, even during the voting rights crisis in Mississippi a half-century ago,” the Times added.
The affidavit came from Bartle Bull, who worked for Robert F. Kennedy’s campaign in New York 40 years ago but has since been better known as a novelist. Bull supported John McCain for president – a fact not noted by the Washington Times.
After the Washington Times piece, Bull popped up in an interview with Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly. “The senior lawyer working on this case, Christian Adams, said to me, ‘if this is not a case of intimidation, nothing is,’” Bull told O’Reilly.
Bull also said he’d heard the Black Panthers in Philadelphia say: “Now you’ll see what it is like to be ruled by a black man, cracker.”
And Rep. Wolf gave a speech on the House floor in July excoriating Holder.
“Martin Luther King did not die to have people in jack boots block polling places,” Wolf said. “I question Eric Holder’s commitment to voting rights.”
Standoff over subpoenas
Now the matter lies in a standoff between the Justice Department and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which has subpoenaed the DOJ for internal communications about the New Black Panther Party case.
The DOJ has resisted complying with the subpoenas, citing a Supreme Court precedent that protects the department’s internal work products from disclosure. But Adams has argued he is obligated to comply with the commission’s inquiry.
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ general counsel, David Blackwood – who like Adams and other staff members on the commission is a Republican National Lawyers Association member – wrote the DOJ on Dec. 18 to say the commission had agreed for now to postpone depositions of DOJ officials.
The commission will set new deposition dates for the department employees in the next few weeks, and may consider subpoenaing other department personnel during the same time.
According to a plan circulated among members of the commission by Todd Gaziano, possible deponents in January and February 2010 include Thomas Perrelli, Loretta King, and civil appellate section chief Diana Flynn. The plan also calls for a hearing in Washington in early 2010.
The commission’s final report is scheduled to be released next summer, in advance of the midterm elections.
Mary Jacoby contributed to this report.
*Experts consulted by Main Justice indicated that the 1992 case was the first Section 11 (b) case they knew about. A reader has pointed out there was a case in 1966, and the language has been updated. While a previous version of this story called the Campaign Legal Center “liberal-leaning,” it is a non-partisan organization whose president served as general counsel for John McCain’s campaign in 2000 and 2008. Adams read the manuscript of, but did not edit, the book on the Voting Rights Act.
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Two Assistant Attorneys General whose friendship goes back over 20 years were formally installed to their respective positions in a joint ceremony Friday afternoon in the Great Hall of the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building.
Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs Laurie Robinson served in the same role during the Clinton administration.
Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legislative Affairs Ron Weich came to the Justice Department after working on Capitol Hill and leading the team that steered Attorney General Eric Holder through the confirmation process earlier this year.
Robinson oversees the research and development arm of the Justice Department, including assisting law enforcement agencies through DOJ grants.
Weich heads the Office of Legislative Affairs, which serves as the liaison between DOJ and the legislative branch.
Holder, along with Deputy Attorney General David Ogden and Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, took part in the ceremony and praised Robinson and Weich.
“Laurie and Ron are not only valued colleagues, they are leaders in the department and throughout this administration,” said Holder. “Their credentials are impeccable; their qualifications are self-evident; and their professional reputations for integrity are well-deserved.”
Holder said Weich is his right arm when he goes to Capitol Hill. The Attorney General and said the two have worked well together ever since Holder got Weich to admit that Holder’s high school, which was a rival of Weich’s high school in New York City, was better than his. (Holder attended Stuyvesant High School; Weich went to the Bronx High School of Science, according to the BLT.)
He said he had a tough time convincing Robinson to return to the Justice Department, as she was happy with her position directing the Master’s Program at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Criminology, and “her relative freedom from her BlackBerry.” Eventually Holder, Ogden and Perrelli convinced Robinson to return to the Department.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Weich’s former boss, were also in attendance. Reid came in midway through the ceremony, having been held up on the Hill with the health care debate. (Weich had also worked for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and, for 10 months in 1989, then-Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who switched parties earlier this year.)
Sessions, a frequent critic of Holder, praised both Robinson and Weich, both of whom he has worked with before. Weich has a reputation for forthrightness and hard work, said Sessions.
“Since I have [Weich] captive here, I believe complicit in your duties will be the responsibility to work in a bi-partisan and cooperative basis,” said Sessions. “I know you will do that since you’ve worked on both sides of the aisle.” He also pointed to Weich’s role as the “gatekeeper” between the Justice Department and the legislative branch.
“This county would not be a better place with politicians making legal decisions,” said Sessions, who served as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama for 12 years. “Trust me.”
When Robinson came up for confirmation before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sessions praised her previous work at the Department of Justice.
“I hate to repeat it in front of the Attorney General, but I said at the time that she may have been the finest appointment that President Clinton made in his time in office,” said Sessions. Holder, who had also been appointed by President Clinton as U.S. Attorney in D.C. and then as Deputy Attorney General, smiled and threw up his hands.
Sessions said Robinson, who controls programs that account for $2 billion in the DOJ funding bill for 2010 that is currently being considered by the Senate, has “a vast empire to guard.”
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Separately, former Vice President Dick Cheney, former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) have criticized Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to prosecute Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other suspected terrorists in federal court.
Now Sean Hannity has brought all of them together in a special edition of his television program titled “Terror on Trial,” which is scheduled to air Friday at 9 p.m. on Fox News Channel.
We caught up with Sen. Sessions, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, on Friday afternoon at the Justice Department’s headquarters, where he was attending the investitures of Laurie Robinson, the head of the Office of Justice Programs, and Ron Weich, the head of the Office of Legislative Affairs.
Echoing his remarks during a recent DOJ oversight hearing, Sessions said, ”A clear decision in favor of military commissions without apology — because no apology is needed for them — would be the best thing for the country and our legal system. I feel strongly about that because this is a longterm war that we’re in.”
Sessions and Holder haven’t spoken about the issue since the committee hearing last month, Sessions told Main Justice. “He said he’s made his mind up, but he did leave open the opportunity to use military commissions,” which Sessions believes would be the best option for terrorists, he said.