Posts Tagged ‘Michael Yaki’
Monday, April 26th, 2010

Bartle Bull turns around to identify the member of the New Black Panther Party who held a nightstick (photo by Ryan J. Reilly / Main Justice).

All the elements of a trial were in place on Friday for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights hearing on the New Black Panther Party case.

There was the chief prosecutor, played by David Blackwood, who serves as counsel to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. There were witnesses — Republican poll watchers Mike Mauro, Chris Hill and Bartle Bull — there were experts, and there were the charges: that the New Black Panthers intimidated voters in Philadelphia on election day in 2008, and that the Obama Justice Department’s dismissal of a civil suit brought in the waning days of the Bush administration would encourage more voter intimidation cases.

And then there were the defendants: the New Black Panther Party, the Obama Justice Department and the media, which for the most part, ignored the incident and year-long controversy over the partial dismissal as it festered on conservative blogs, fed by a You Tube video showing two members of the racist fringe group standing outside a majority black polling station in Philadelphia in military-style garb.

A few journalists and members of the New Black Panther Party showed up. The Justice Department didn’t, deciding to offer up Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez at a separate hearing on May 14 away from the spectacle of Friday’s four hour hearing.

Hans von Spakovsky, seated left, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), seated in the foreground, and members of the New Black Panther Party at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights hearing on Friday (photo by Ryan J. Reilly / Main Justice)

Six uniformed members of the New Black Panther Party and a few associates also attended the hearing equipped with newspapers that claimed the party was “under fire” from the commission, right wing conservatives and The Washington Times. During the hearing, the Panthers were seated in the second and third rows of the hearing room next to controversial former Justice Department official Hans von Spakovsky and later behind Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.).

But this wasn’t a trial, insisted Commissioner Gail Heriot. “No one is on trial here - not the members of the New Black Panther Party, not the witnesses to the incident, not the DOJ lawyers who initially filed this lawsuit, and not the DOJ officials who ultimately decided to terminate the lawsuit except in a very minor, minor aspect,” she said.

The commission had a duty to investigate such matters, said Heriot, one of two commissioners who switched from Republican to independent during the Bush administration, allowing two additional Republicans to be appointed without violating the rule that no more than four members of a party may serve on the commission at the same time.

All that was missing for the trial was a defense team. Even those commissioners who disagreed with the commission’s focus on the matter wanted nothing to do with the New Black Panthers. “This is not a defense of the Black Panthers, this is not to belittle anything that the witnesses saw or heard, but it is about the greater issue of what this commission is really all about, a mission that we have been sorely lacking within the last five years,” said Commissioner Michael Yaki. “It is to me about one thing — partisan payback. There is nothing about this report that talks about how this goes to a broader question about voting rights enforcement.”

Members of the New Black Panther Party were subdued during the meeting, sitting quietly in their chairs and occasionally whispering to one another. At one point, when a Panther tried to hand out a statement from the party to members of the audience, a commission staffer asked him not to, and he obliged.

Minister King Samir Shabazz takes photos at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights hearing (photo by Ryan J. Reilly / Main Justice)

At another point, Minister King Samir Shabazz stood up and took photos of the commissioners, those testifying and the audience.

During brief intermissions, the Panthers lobbied the commissioners, pointing out that they suspended Shabazz until January 2010 because of his actions. After three and a half hours, the group left, taking up positions on the corner of 9th and G Streets NW where they handed out newspapers to passersby.

Some Republican members of the commission argued that this incident had broader implications for the Voting Rights Act and drew analogies to the persecution of civil rights activists in the 1960s.

“One of the turning points was the national TV pictures of ‘Bull’ Connor turning dogs and hoses on the civil rights marchers,” Gaziano said. “After that national viewing, Americans who wanted to believe it wasn’t as bad couldn’t do so.”

“So the fact that the YouTube was viewed by hundreds of thousands and broadcast on national TV raised the awareness of this issue so that would you agree with me that the dismissal is a bigger problem than not filing where the evidence is ambiguous?” asked Gaziano.

Poll watchers Mike Mauro, Chris Hill and Bartle Bull at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights hearing on Friday (photo by Ryan J. Reilly / Main Justice).

Some of the Republican members of the commission have sought to  prove politics were a factor in the handling of the case. They have pressed to hear testimony from Justice Department lawyers J. Christian Adams and Christopher Coates, but the Justice Department has resisted, citing a longstanding precedent that insulates career lawyers from having to testify before committees. Thernstorm said she had a problem with subpoenaing career lawyers.

Gregory G. Katsas, a partner at Jones Day and a former acting Associate Attorney General (photo by Ryan J. Reilly / Main Justice).

In an attempt to tie the decision to Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, Republicans brought in Gregory G. Katsas, who served in an acting role as Associate Attorney General during the Bush administration.

He testified that in his experience, the Associate Attorney General would have played a role in the decision. Katsas said the White House would have not been consulted about the decision, but would be notified so they could handle press queries after a decision was announced.

At least one Republican on the commission, Abigail Thernstrom, was critical of the focus on what even Republican poll watchers admitted was an isolated incident.

“As much as I abhor the New Black Panther Party, it is nothing in my view but a lunatic fringe group, a few of whose members showed up at one polling place in a largely black, safe Democratic polling place,” Thernstrom said. “There isn’t an analogy to racist whites stopping blacks from voting throughout the Jim Crow South.”

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009
U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (Photo by Ryan J. Reilly / Main Justice).

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights at their meeting on Friday (Photo by Ryan J. Reilly / Main Justice).

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.

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

The U.S. Civil Rights Commission is considering holding public hearings to investigate the disputed Black Panthers voter intimidation case, Main Justice has learned.

Members of the New Black Panther Party

Members of the New Black Panther Party

A plan circulated last month by the commission envisions possibly one hearing in Philadelphia, where members of the militant New Black Panther Party were accused of intimidating voters by standing outside a polling place last November in quasi-military garb, one of them holding a night stick, according to a document reviewed by Main Justice.

Todd Gaziano (Heritage Foundation)

Todd Gaziano

Another hearing is tentatively slated in Washington early next year, and would seek to call current and former Justice Department officials to testify.

The hearings would keep in the public eye a controversial and racially tinged case that has already been a significant distraction for the new Obama Justice Department.

“More oversight is a good thing,” independent Commissioner Todd Gaziano, an official with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said in an interview.

But Francisco-based Michael Yaki, one of two Democrats on the Civil Rights Commission, criticized the continued spotlight on the case. ”This is basically going to be a partisan kangaroo court, convened by my partisan colleagues,” Yaki said.

Michael Yaki

Michael Yaki

Conservatives have objected to the Obama DOJ’s decision in May to dismiss the case against the New Black Panther Party and two of its members, and the controversy contributed to a delay in confirming President Obama’s choice to head the Civil Rights Division, Tom Perez.

The case was filed in January, in the waning days of the Bush administration. But after the Black Panthers failed to contest the allegations, then-acting Civil Rights Division chief Loretta King reviewed the matter. She found the evidence weak and recommended dropping the charges, DOJ officials have said. There were First Amendment concerns about pursuing a lawsuit against the men based in part on their dress, and one of the accused Black Panthers — Jerry Jackson — was a certified Democratic poll watcher, DOJ officials have said.

The Justice Department did obtain an injunction against defendant, Minister King Samir Shabazz, who held the night stick outside the majority-black polling station in Philadelphia.

In September the commission — composed of four Republicans, two independents with conservative affiliations, and two Democrats — reviewed plans for an investigation and hearings.

The plan includes gathering depositions or other information from Bartle Bull, a 1960s-era civil rights lawyer who said in an interview with Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly that he heard one of the Black Panthers say, “Now you’ll see what it is like to be ruled by a black man, cracker;”  poll watchers Larry and Angela Counts and Chris Hill; the independent journalist working for the local Republican Party, Stephen R. Morse, who videotaped the Black Panthers in what became a YouTube hit; and the local police officers who responded to calls on election day from white Republican poll watchers concerned about the Black Panthers’ presence.

Bartle Bull

Bartle Bull

The panel would also seek to interview the defendants in the case, including Malik Zulu Shabazz, chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based Black Panthers. The voice mail at the New Black Panther Party headquarters is full, and no one has answered the phone in repeated attempts to contact the organization.

The commission might also seek depositions from other current DOJ officials, including Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, the department’s No. 3 official who signed off on King’s recommendation to dismiss the suit; King; Diana K. Flynn, chief of the civil Appellate Section; and Christopher Coats, Voting Rights Section chief.

The envisioned hearings in Washington would also likely pit Bush-era Civil Rights Division officials, who have been accused of politicizing the division, against Obama DOJ officials working under the first black Attorney General, Eric Holder, who has said he wants to return the division to its “historic mission” of enforcing anti-discrimination laws to protect minorities.

Commission Chairman Gerald Reynolds did not respond to requests for comment placed through commission spokeswoman Lenore Ostrowsky.

The case also has many racial overtones. The Southern Poverty Law Center has classified the New Black Panther Party (which is not affiliated with the 1960s-era Black Panthers founded by Huey Newton) as a hate group for its anti-white rhetoric. And King, the career civil rights division lawyer who recommended dismissing the charges, is black. But most of the accusers are white, and the case was signed off on by then-acting Civil Rights Division chief Grace Chung Becker, who failed to win Senate confirmation after Democrats questioned her commitment to enforcing discrimination laws on behalf of minorities.

Moreover, Bartle Bull’s charge that one of the Black Panthers used a racial slur against whites while invoking the impending election of Barack Obama — the nation’s first black president — has been further grist for the mill, mostly among conservative commentators.

We are seeking comment from the Justice Department and will update this report if we receive a response. In the past, DOJ spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler has said: “We are committed to vigorous enforcement of the laws protecting anyone exercising his or her right to vote.”

Below is the You Tube video of  police arriving at the Philadelphia polling station last November:

Monday, October 5th, 2009

Democratic members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights are accusing the agency’s conservative majority of acting in an “improperly partisan” manner in challenging the Obama Justice Department’s handling of the New Black Panther Party case.

The dispute stems from a May decision by the DOJ to dismiss most of a government voter intimidation case filed in the waning days of the Bush administration against members of the militant black-power group, two of whom were videotaped outside a Philadelphia polling place last November in quasi-military garb.

The controversy – which has been fanned by conservative bloggers and commentators and Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill – has become a significant distraction for Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department and contributed to a delay in confirming Civil Rights Division nominee Tom Perez.

Acting Civil Rights Division chief Loretta King (doj)

Acting Civil Rights Division chief Loretta King (doj)

The two Democrats on the eight-member Civil Rights Commission weighed in publicly for the first time last week, sending this letter to Holder outlining their objections.

On Sept 11., the commission voted to devote most of its 2009 annual report to an examination of the Black Panther case, to the exclusion of other civil rights matters, the letter said. Democratic commissioner Michael Yaki walked out of that meeting in protest and did not vote, according to the letter and interviews with commission members.

Yaki and the other Democrat on the commission, Arlan D. Melendez, said in their Oct. 1 letter to Holder that they find the agency’s decision to elevate the matter “deeply troubling.” They added that commission majority does “not have our support.”

“If our colleagues were truly interested in whether our federal government is adequately tackling allegations of voter intimidation, we would support a serious comprehensive review of how all such complaints have been handled by the Department over the past decade,” the Democratic commission members wrote.

Independent commission member Todd Gaziano, director of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said in an interview, “To suggest that there is some partisan motive is … laughable.”

But the Democratic members of the agency say Gaziano is a leader of the move to elevate the issue. They said in their letter to Holder that the Heritage Foundation official proposed expanding the commission’s investigation and nominated himself to a special subcommittee of the commission that will assume control of the investigation from career commission staff. The Democrats say they are boycotting this special subcommittee probe.

The Democrats also noted that Hans Von Spakovsky, a former Civil Rights Division official who was accused by Democrats of helping politicize the division during the Bush administration, formerly served as a consultant to Gaziano on the commission and now works with him at the Heritage Foundation. Von Spakovsky has been critical of the Black Panther case dismissal, writing in the National Review Online that “liberal and partisan” staff at the DOJ undermine the credibility of an internal ethics investigation now underway by the department’s Office of Professional Responsibility, the letter said.

“Our commission is choosing to devote a substantial amount of its resources to review a single case by the DOJ after years of turning a blind eye to the politicization of the Justice Department by the previous administration,” Yaki told Main Justice in an interview.

Gaziano disagreed with the Democratic members’ characterization of the commission’s motives. Speaking of the DOJ’s decision to dismiss the case, he told Main Justice: “The possible change in practice of policy may have some larger implications… affecting future voting rights enforcement.”

He added: “All Americans of all ideological persuasions would want to understand why the DOJ dismisses suits against persons who wear paramilitary uniforms and shout epithets at voters.”

At issue is an incident last November, where two members of the anti-white fringe group were videotaped standing in front of a majority-black polling place in Philadelphia wearing berets and military-style fatigues. One of the Black Panthers, identified in court papers as Minister King Samir Shabazz, held a nightstick.

Shabazz left the scene without incident after a police officer showed up in response to a call from a Republican poll watcher. The videotape was made by an independent journalist hired by the local Republican Party to monitor polling last November.

It was uploaded to YouTube, where it’s received more than 1 million views, through a site called electionjournal.org, run by a Republican political operative named Mike Roman. The incident was further publicized by the conservative leaning Fox News, which sent a reporter to Philadelphia polling place after the Black Panther members had departed.

The election-day videotape does not record any racial epithets. But the Southern Poverty Law Center has categorized the New Black Panther Party as a hate group for its anti-white rhetoric. Attempts to reach the D.C.-based organization were unsuccessful.

The civil case was filed by the Civil Rights Division on Jan. 7, two weeks before President Obama’s inauguration. It named as defendants the New Black Panther Party; its chairman, Malik Zulu Shabazz; and two members from Philadelphia, King Samir Shabazz and Jerry Jackson.

A Bush political appointee, Grace Chung Becker, signed the complaint in her capacity as acting chief of the Civil Rights Division. Becker wasn’t confirmed by the Senate because of concerns from Democrats that she wasn’t committed to upholding anti-discrimination laws designed to protect minorities.

When the New Black Panther Party and its members failed to contest the lawsuit, the DOJ last spring had to decide whether to seek a default judgment. At that point, the case came to the new acting head of the Civil Rights Division, Loretta King, a career Justice Department lawyer who’s been shepherding the division since Obama was sworn in as president.

King decided the case was shaky. One of the Black Panthers at the polling place, identified by the DOJ as Jackson, was a certified Democratic poll watcher, and there were First Amendment concerns about pursuing a lawsuit against the men based in part on their dress.

“The facts and the law did not support pursuing those claims against them,” Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs Ron Weich wrote in a July 13 letter to Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee.

The Justice Department did obtain an injunction against the nightstick-wielding Shabazz. But it dismissed the rest of the case, a move Republicans have portrayed as evidence the Obama DOJ is politicized.

“This case may be significant and it is clear only if we have the proper context,” Gaziano said in the interview, explaining why the commission has mounted an independent inquiry.

The Civil Rights Commission is an independent agency with no enforcement powers. It is currently composed of four Republicans, two independents with conservative affiliations, and two Democrats. The commissioners serve staggered six-year terms.

The panel was created by the 1957 Civil Rights Act. But its history of bitter partisan infighting has eroded its credibility over the years and left it marginalized as a player in Washington.

Nonetheless, the commission jumped into the Black Panther fray in June, sending a letter to King asking for more information about a Washington Times report that she recommended dismissal of the case. Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli, an Obama political appointee who ranks third in the department hierarchy, approved King’s request, the Washington Times reported.

In August, House Judiciary’s Smith asked GOP senators to delay confirmation of Perez, President Obama’s nominee to head the Civil Right Division, because the matter. (UPDATE: The Senate confirmed Perez on Tuesday after months of delay.)

Over the summer, Department lawyers wrote numerous letters to Smith and other Republican lawmakers, and trooped to meetings on Capitol Hill, to explain their handling of the case. Last month the DOJ’s internal ethics agency, the Office of Professional Responsibility, opened an inquiry into the matter, at the request of Smith and other Republicans.

The Black Panther civil case was filed under Section 11(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The DOJ says it has filed only three such cases in three decades. That meager record of enforcement is what should be under investigation by the commission, the Democratic members said in their letter to Holder.

“[O]ur colleagues apparently want to avoid a detailed review of the Department’s work on this issue during the previous administration, or the bigger question of whether the tools available to stop voter intimidation – including laws addressing ‘voter suppression’ tactics and enforcement funding – are adequate and well used,” Yaki and Melendez wrote.

Department spokesperson Tracy Schmaler declined to comment on the letter to Holder from Yaki and Melendez. But she said: “We are committed to vigorous enforcement of the laws protecting anyone exercising his or her right to vote.”
Debbie Ghamkhar contributed to this report.