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.”
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A Justice Department official who urged pursuing a voter intimidation case against members of the New Black Panthers will appear before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, The Washington Times reported Wednesday.
Christopher Coates, who was chief of the Civil Rights Division Voting Section, will testify before the commission on Friday when the body continues its hearing on the DOJ’s decision to dismiss charges against all but one defendant in the case. The defendants from the anti-white fringe group stood outside a majority-black polling place in November 2008 wearing military clothing.
The DOJ previously said it would not allow Coates to appear before the commission. He is now working at the South Carolina U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The handling of the New Black Panthers case has worried Republicans who have expressed concern that politics may have influenced the DOJ’s decision to dismiss charges in the case.
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The Justice Department Inspector General said Monday that his office will examine how the Civil Rights Division enforces voting laws after House Republicans expressed concern about the way prosecutors handled a voter intimidation case against the New Black Panther Party.
Inspector General Glenn Fine wrote in a letter dated Sept. 13 that the review will not focus just on the case, which involved members an anti-white fringe group who stood outside a majority-black polling place in November 2008 wearing military clothing. His office will instead examine the Civil Rights Division Voting Section’s enforcement of voting laws over the years.
The letter was in response to inquiries from Reps. Lamar Smith of Texas, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, and Frank Wolf of Virginia, the leading Republican on the House panel that oversees the DOJ budget. Both expressed concern that politics may have influenced the DOJ’s decision to dismiss charges against all but one defendant in the case.
“We believe that our review of these issues will address many of the issues raised in your recent letters to me,” Fine wrote.
Smith said he was “pleased” with the Inspector General’s decision to review the DOJ’s enforcement of voting laws over time.
“In order to preserve equality under the law, we must ensure that the Justice Department enforces the law without prejudice,” Smith said in a statement. “I look forward to seeing the results of Inspector General Fine’s review of this matter.”
The DOJ Office of Professional Responsibility is also examining potential prosecutorial misconduct stemming from the case. The office is wrapping up its probe, which has lasted more than a year, and is starting to write up a report on its findings, Fine wrote.
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Attorney General Eric Holder in a New Mexico speech urged the Senate to move on his nominee to head the Civil Rights Division.
The Senate Judiciary Committee sent Thomas Perez’s nomination to the full Senate on June 4. But he’s faced headwinds in Congress. Last month, House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Lamar Smith (R-Texas) urged Senate Republicans to put a hold on Perez’s nomination until the DOJ gives Congress more information about a voter-intimidation case involving the New Black Panther Party. Delays on Perez’s confirmation are putting a wrench in Holder’s efforts to reshape the Civil Rights Division.
Holder told lawyers gathered for the Hispanic National Bar Association Annual Conference in Albuquerque, N.M. on Thursday that DOJ needs Perez and another nominee, Ignacia Moreno, in place as soon as possible. Moreno, President Obama’s choice to head the Environment and Natural Resources Division, will testify in a Sept. 9 confirmation hearing. Obama nominated her June 8. Both nominees are backed by the HNBA.
“The Justice Department and the nation will benefit from Tom’s and Ignacia’s leadership,” Holder said in prepared remarks. “The resolution of many of the problems our country faces will be hastened by their entry on duty at Justice.”
Perez is Maryland’s labor secretary and a former special counsel to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) Moreno served as a principal counsel and a special assistant in the DOJ’s environment division during the Clinton administration. She is currently a counsel at General Electric Co.
Three other Assistant Attorney General nominees are also awaiting action by the full Senate: Office of Legal Counsel nominee Dawn Johnsen, Tax Division nominee Mary L. Smith and Office of Legal Policy nominee Christopher Schroeder.
Johnsen was reported out of committee March 19. Smith was endorsed by the Senate panel June 11. Schroeder got the panel’s nod July 28.
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Charlie Savage has this standout piece is today’s New York Times on the state of the Civil Rights Division and Attorney General Eric Holder’s intention, in his own words, to return to its ”historical mission.”
The shift will mean “a major revival of high-impact civil rights enforcement against policies, in areas ranging from housing to hiring, where statistics show that minorities fare disproportionately poorly,” Savage writes.
The Bush administration strayed from the traditional focus on racial discrimination, focusing instead on areas such as religious discrimination and human trafficking. The Obama administration’s plan is to continue enforcement in those areas as well. The White House has requested funding for 50 more lawyers — enough to do everything.
The House report to the Justice Department’s fiscal year 2010 funding bill includes funds to bring on an additional 51 full-time employees in the Civil Rights Division.
The Justice Department has requested a 2010 budget increase of $15.7 million for the division, an 18 percent increase from the 2009 budget. The House and Senate reports have $145.5 million set aside for the section.
The report from the House Appropriations Committee said:
“The Committee is particularly supportive of the additional resources proposed in past years. The Committee is particularly supportive of the additional resources proposed for the Civil Rights Division to restore its base capacity to enforce civil rights laws; expand its capacity to prosecute and provide litigation support for human trafficking and unsolved civil rights era crimes; carry out its responsibilities associated with the civil rights of institutionalized persons and the access rights of the disabled; and enhance the enforcement of fair housing and fair lending laws.”
The division is also working on a new hiring policy, according to Savage. Panels of career employees, rather than political appointees, would make hiring decisions.
But former Bush administration officials noted that career civil rights lawyers are overwhelmingly left-leaning, so the panels would likely reach the same conclusions as political appointees in the Obama administration.
“In some ways, it’s a masterstroke by them,” Alston & Bird partner Robert Driscoll, a division political appointee from 2001 to 2003, told the Times.
But recharging the division could prove tricky following an era of politicized hiring, orchestrated in large part by Bradley Schlozman, who was a deputy and acting head of the division during the Bush administration. The department’s watchdogs found that Schlozman violated federal law in his quest to stock the division with “right-thinking Americans.”
During his tenure, Schlozman hired 99 lawyers. According to a joint report by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility, 63 of them were Republicans, two of them were Democrats, and 34 were labeled as “unknown.”
Schlozman’s effect on morale was apparent. The Obama transition team’s confidential report on the division, obtained by Savage, shows that 236 civil rights lawyers left from 2003 to 2007. The division has about 350 lawyers.
According to Savage:
Many of their replacements had scant civil rights experience and were graduates of lower-ranked law schools. The transition report says the era of hiring such “inexperienced or poorly qualified” lawyers — who are now themselves protected by civil service laws — has left lasting damage.
“While some of the political hires have performed competently and a number of others have left, the net effect of the politicized hiring process and the brain drain is an attorney work force largely ill-equipped to handle the complex, big-impact litigation that should comprise a significant part” of the division’s docket, the transition report said.
Republicans have volleyed charges of politicization back at Holder’s Justice Department. In particular, DOJ’s decision to downgrade a voter-intimidation lawsuit against the New Black Panther Party (read our previous coverage of the case here and here) stirred House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Lamar Smith (R-Texas) to urge Senate Republicans to put a hold on Civil Rights Division nominee Thomas Perez until DOJ gives Congress more information about the case. And according to Savage, they have.
The delay is holding up reviews of section managers ”installed by the Bush team, including several regarded with suspicion by civil rights advocacy groups,” according to Savage. Top-level career officials may not be transferred to other posts until 120 days after a new agency head is confirmed.
According to the Office of Personnel Management’s “Guide to the Senior Executive Service“:
Career appointees cannot be reassigned involuntarily within 120 days of the appointment of a new agency head, or the appointment of the career appointee’s most immediate supervisor who is a noncareer appointee with the authority to make an initial appraisal of the career appointee’s performance. The intent of this moratorium is to provide a “get acquainted” period to allow the new agency head and noncareer appointees to get to know the career senior executives and their skills and expertise. However, after 120 days, agency managers are free to reassign their career appointees.
Andrew Ramonas contributed to this report.
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House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Lamar Smith (R-Texas) cannot vote on presidential nominations. But Smith is trying to hold up Justice Department Civil Rights Division nominee Thomas Perez until DOJ gives the House member more information about the dismissal of voter-intimidation charges against members of the militant New Black Panthers.
Smith urged the Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee today to put a hold on Perez. The House Judiciary ranking member said the Justice Department responses to letters he sent on May 28, July 9 and July 17 about the dismissal have been “overly vague, raising concerns about possible political interference in this case.” Read all of the letters from Smith and DOJ here.
Smith and other House Republicans have alleged for months that politics played a role in the case dismissal. The Washington Times reported last month that Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli, a political appointee, approved a recommendation by Acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King to drop voter intimidation charges against members of the militant New Black Panthers.
But King, who’s been acting head of the division since January, told Perrelli she had “concerns” about the case during a regular review meeting, The Times reported. King recommended some of the charges be dismissed, and Perrelli agreed. Read our previous report about The Times article here.
The Justice Department has denied the accusations made by Smith. DOJ spokesperson Tracy Schmaler told Main Justice today “top career attorneys in the Civil Rights Division” made the decision that some of the charges be dismissed.
In a four-page letter sent July 13, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich said DOJ officials will meet with Smith to further discuss the matter and he explained how DOJ handled each of the New Black Panthers members listed in the initial DOJ complaint.
The complaint said Malik Zulu Shabazz, Minister King Samir Shabazz and Jerry Jackson brandished weapons and used “coercion, threats and intimidation” to harass voters, both black and white, at a Philadelphia polling place last Nov. 4. The defendants wore “military-style uniforms” including black berets and combat boots, the complaint said.
The Justice Department essentially won the case when the defendants failed to contest it. But DOJ decided to file for dismissal of the case instead of getting a default judgment. The dismissal did not extend to one defendant, King Samir Shabazz. Read the DOJ’s filing here. Read our original report on the “controversy” here.
“We assure you that the Department is committed to comprehensive and vigorous enforcement of both the civil and criminal provisions of federal law that prohibit voter intimidation,” Weich said in the letter. “We continue to work with voters, communities, and local law enforcement to ensure that every American can vote free from intimidation, coercion or threats.”
Smith also requested in the July 9 letter that the DOJ Office of Inspector General investigate the matter. Inspector General Glenn Fine wrote in a July 21 letter that he forwarded Smith’s request to the DOJ Office of Professional Responsibility. Fine said OPR — not OIG — was the appropriate office to handle Smith’s request.
Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have not jumped on the dismissal like Smith has, but they have not been too keen on Perez.
Perez was reported out of committee June 4 by a 17-2 vote. Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) were the only senators to oppose the Civil Rights Division nominee in committee.
Sessions, the ranking member of the committee, called into question last month Perez’s prior work on the board of CASA de Maryland, an influential immigrant advocacy group that has come under fire by anti-immigration groups.
Coburn said last month that Perez, former director of the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has supported providing translators to illegal immigrants who are receiving medical care. The Oklahoma senator, a medical doctor who operated on people without U.S. citizenship, said providing illegal immigrants with interpreters would “wreck health care.”
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said Coburn and Sessions got a “much clearer view” of the Civil Rights Division nominee from a meeting they had with Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Perez. Sessions said it was “a good meeting.”
A Republican spokesperson for the Senate Judiciary Committee did not respond to a request for comment.
Joe Palazzolo contributed to this report.
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The Washington Times’s Jerry Seper reports that Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli approved a recommendation by Acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King to drop voter intimidation charges against members of the militant New Black Panthers.
(Note to DOJ Public Affairs staff: I’m being sarcastic).
What’s this Black Panther matter about? You can read our previous reports here and here, or I can just tell you: It’s about Republicans trying to portray the Obama Justice Department as politicized. You know, the way Democrats said the Bush Justice Department was politicized.
The Obama DOJ is highly political, yes. But politicized, as in Brad Schlozman politicized? No.
The Washington Times says unnamed line attorneys in the Civil Rights Division worked for five months to build the voter intimidation case against members of the militant black power group, who were videotaped in paramilitary uniforms and brandishing a nightstick at a Philadelphia polling place last fall.
But King, who’s been acting head of the division since January, told Perrelli she had “concerns” about the case during a regular review meeting, the Times reported. King recommended some of the charges be dismissed, and Perrelli agreed.
I don’t know anything about the seriousness of the alleged offenses, or the strength of the case. But it does seem these unnamed line attorneys were a source for the Times’s article. So, who are they? I suspect they were Bush-era ideologues, but I don’t know. Tips welcome at email@example.com.
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