A federal prosecutor who urged pursuing a controversial voter intimidation case against members of the New Black Panther Party defied Justice Department orders not to appear on Friday before a federal commission.
Christopher Coates, who was chief of the Civil Rights Division Voting Section, told members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez and other DOJ officials gave inaccurate statements on the handling of the case, which involved members of an anti-white fringe group who stood outside a majority-black polling place wearing military clothing in November 2008.
The prosecutor said the Civil Rights Division, led by then-acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King, was opposed to the enforcement of voting rights laws when there was suspected discrimination against whites. Coates said the decisions made on the New Black Panthers case led to a “travesty on justice.”
“Quite simply, if incorrect representations are going to successfully thwart inquiry into the systemic problems regarding race-neutral enforcement of the Voting Rights Act by the Civil Rights Division – problems that were manifested in the DOJ’s disposition of the New Black Panther Party case – that end is not going to be furthered or accomplished by my sitting silently by at the direction of my supervisors while incorrect information is provided,” said Coates, who is now at the South Carolina U.S. Attorney’s Office. “I do not believe that I am professionally, ethically, legally, much less, morally bound to allow such a result to occur.”
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights subpoenaed Coates and former DOJ trial attorney J. Christian Adams as part of its investigation into the DOJ’s handling of the New Black Panthers case. The DOJ said it would not allow Coates or Adams to appear before the commission, citing a longstanding policy that prevents frontline attorneys from testifying. Adams, who resigned earlier this year over the case, testified before the commission in July, saying the DOJ purposely passed up cases against blacks suspected of voting rights infractions.
Director Joseph H. Hunt of the DOJ Civil Division Federal Programs branch wrote in a letter to commission general counsel David Blackwood that Coates is not “an appropriate witness” to testify about current DOJ decision making. Perez was the only DOJ official who was allowed to appear before the commission.
Perez, who was not at the DOJ during the final disposition of the case, defended the handling of the case in May when he testified before the commission.
“This is a case about career people disagreeing with career people,” Perez said in May. He added that it show the “robust interaction” that is an element of the typical daily life of the Justice Department.
DOJ Inspector General Glenn Fine said earlier this month that his office will examine how the Civil Rights Division enforces voting rights laws, after Republican Reps. Lamar Smith of Texas and Frank Wolf of Virginia expressed concern about the handling of the New Black Panthers case. Fine, however, said he would look at the Voting Section’s enforcement of laws “over time,” suggesting his probe would also examine allegations of politicization during the George W. Bush administration.
At the hearing Friday, Coates said there was “widespread” opposition in the DOJ to his successful 2005 prosecution of a black Democratic Party official in Noxubee County, Miss., which was the first time a case was filed under the Voting Rights Act for discrimination against white voters.
“In my opinion, this disposition of the Panther case was ordered because the people calling the shots in May 2009 were angry at the filing of the  case and angry at the filing of the Panther case,” Coates said. “That anger was the result of their deep-seated opposition to the equal enforcement of the Voting Rights Act against racial minorities and for the protection of white voters, who have been discriminated against.”
The prosecutor said he asked to transfer to South Carolina for an 18-month assignment in late 2009, after “considerable conflict” between himself and Civil Rights Division officials, including King and her deputy, Steve Rosenbaum. He said he became Voting Section “chief only in name” by fall 2009.
“If Senator [John] McCain had won the election and … his people let me in as chief of the Voting Section and there had been good relations between us, then I would have stayed on as chief of the Voting Section awhile longer,” Coates said.
In an e-mailed statement, Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler called the commission’s investigation “thin on facts and evidence and thick on rhetoric.” She also noted a Justice Department Inspector General’s report, which found the Civil Rights Division during the previous administration was overly politicized
Her full statement is embedded below.
“As even one Republican member of the commission has acknowledged, this so-called investigation is thin on facts and evidence and thick on rhetoric.
The Department makes enforcement decisions based on the merits, not the race, gender or ethnicity of any party involved. We are committed to comprehensive and vigorous enforcement of the federal laws that prohibit voter intimidation. We continue to work with voters, communities, and local law enforcement to ensure that Americans can vote free from intimidation, coercion or threats.
Let’s not forget the context in which these allegations are being made. The politicization that occurred in the Civil Rights Division in the previous administration has been well documented by the Inspector General, and it was a disgrace to the great history of the division. We have changed that. We have reinvigorated the Civil Rights Division and ensured that it is actively enforcing the American people’s civil rights, and it is clear that not everyone supports that. We are committed to enforcing our nation’s civil rights laws, and we are going to continue to do so without respect to politics.”