The Department of Justice’s internal ethics watchdog is looking into the circumstances surrounding the dismissal in May of voter intimidation charges against members of the New Black Panther Party, a case that has sparked outrage from conservatives.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, revealed the inquiry in a news release today. Smith has been a vocal critic of the Obama DOJ’s decision to dismiss charges against two one members of the black separatist group, who stood outside a Philadelphia polling place last November in military-style fatigues and beret. The DOJ won an injunction against a third another New Black Panther, who’d carried a nightstick.
“I am pleased that someone at the Justice Department is finally taking the dismissal of the New Black Panther Party case seriously,” Smith said in a statement. A copy of the letter from Office of Professional Responsibility chief counsel Mary Patrice Brown can be viewed here. It says OPR is conducting an “inquiry,” a preliminary step that indicates the office found more grounds to explore the complaint, while stopping short of opening a more formal investigation.
According to OPR’s 2006 annual report:
OPR reviews each allegation and determines whether further investigation is warranted. If it is, OPR determines whether to conduct an inquiry or a full investigation in a specific case …
In some cases, OPR initiates an inquiry because more information is needed to resolve the matter. In such cases, OPR may request additional information from the complainant or obtain a written response from the attorney against whom the allegation was made, and may review other relevant materials such as pleadings and transcripts.
“Our take on it is, there’s enough for an inqury, which is a good sign,” a House Judiciary Republican staffer said. Smith had asked DOJ Inspector General Glenn Fine to investigate, but Fine said the matter fell under OPR’s purview and referred it to the ethics office.
In the news release Smith said:
“The Justice Department’s decision to drop a case against political allies who allegedly intimidated voters on Election Day 2008 reeks of political interference. The Justice Department’s refusal to provide Congress with an explanation for the dismissal only further raises concerns that political favoritism played a role in this case. Voter intimidation threatens democracy. These cases must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law without political considerations. I look forward to seeing the results of the Department’s investigation.”
Acting Civil Rights Division chief Loretta King recommended dismissing most of the complaint in April, after the New Black Panther members and the party failed to respond. The complaint had been filed in January, in the waning days of the Bush administration. Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli approved her recommendation to dismiss the complaint, The Washington Times has reported. Read the notice of dismissal here.
Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs Ron Weich wrote Smith in July, saying the DOJ concluded the evidence did not support the allegation that the New Black Panther Party had directed its members to block polling places across the country. ”[F]actual contentions in the complaint did not have sufficient evidentiary support,” Weich said. The DOJ also had concerns about First Amendment issues, Weich said.
Republicans haven’t accepted the Obama DOJ’s explanation. Conservative bloggers and commentators, including Rush Limbaugh, have condemned the decision to drop most of the case. And Smith has called on Senate Republicans to block the nomination of President Obama’s choice to the head the Civil Rights Division, Tom Perez, over the matter, although it appears Perez has enough votes to win confirmation.
The Washington, D.C.-based New Black Panther Party is not related to the 1960s New Black Panther Party founded by Huey Newton and other “black power” activists. The Southern Poverty Law Center has classified the New Black Panther Party a hate group for its anti-white rhetoric.
The article has been corrected.