The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has issued subpoenas to employees of the Justice Department and has scheduled depositions in the coming weeks as part of its investigation into the Civil Rights Division’s dismissal of a voter intimidation case against the New Black Panther Party, Main Justice has learned.
In a closed executive session held in conjunction with a public meeting last Friday, the members of the commission discussed a plan to issue subpoenas in relation to the handling of a case arising from an event last November in which two members of the black separatist group stood outside a Philadelphia polling place in military-style fatigues and berets. One carried a nightstick.
Charges were initially brought in the waning days of the Bush administration, then dismissed in May on the recommendation of Acting Civil Rights Division chief Loretta King.
Unrelated to the Civil Rights Commission’s actions, the Department of Justice’s internal ethics watchdog, the Office of Professional Responsibility, has been looking into the decision to dismiss the charges against two Black Panther members and the party itself. An injunction was obtained against the New Black Panther member who held the nightstick. The OPR inquiry was begun at the urging of congressional Republicans.
The Republican-appointed members of the Civil Rights Commission voted to subpoena witnesses to the event in Philadelphia, former DOJ officials who approved the suit against the National Black Panther Party, defendants in the case, individuals who contacted DOJ about the case and current DOJ officials. The commission’s general counsel advised that because the discussion could relate to the performance of DOJ officials, it should be conducted in closed session.
While the names of the officials who were sent subpoenas couldn’t be learned, Grace Chung Becker was the Bush administration’s acting Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Civil Rights Division when the Black Panther complaint was filed in January. Testimony is also likely to be sought from the Obama DOJ’s number three official, Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, who approved King’s recommendation to dismiss most of the charges, according to a draft commission planning document reviewed by Main Justice.
The draft document also recommended obtaining depositions from Diana K. Flynn, chief of the Civil Division’s Appellate Section; Christopher Coates, head of the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division; and King, who served as acting Assistant Attorney General from January until current Civil Rights Division head Tom Perez was confirmed last month.
While the timing of any planned depositions also couldn’t be learned, it appears the commission wants to move quickly. During the public session of the hearing, members discussed concerns that depositions could interfere with commissioners’ holiday schedules. Main Justice has confirmed they were speaking about the Thanksgiving holiday this week.
In a preliminary schedule dated Sept. 8, Commissioner Todd Gaziano laid out a plan to depose current DOJ officials in November and December. The plan passed with votes from the Republican-appointed members of the commission who constitute a working majority.
Commissioner Michael Yaki voted against the plan, saying he was concerned the commission was “expending an inordinate amount of time and resources on a single-shot investigation on a lightly used statute… when there are broader issues on voter intimidation that could be looked at by this commission.” He was also troubled that the commission wasn’t holding a hearing in Philadelphia where other witnesses to the incident could more readily testify.
Commission Chairman Gerald Reynolds told Main Justice that he believed the New Black Panther Party case had broader implications for civil rights issues.
“I don’t care what the race of the men or women who decide to do this is, we have rules in place, laws on the books to prevent this and I just want to get a better sense of from the Department of Justice as to why they did not aggressively use the rules that they had at their disposal,” said Reynolds.
“There may be a reasonable, rational, logical reason why they made the decision they did, I’m just curious why they did,” said Reynolds.
We have requested a comment from Department of Justice officials and will update if they respond.
This story has been updated with additional information.