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Panthergate: The politicization of the Justice Department

By Carey Roberts
web posted February 21, 2011

Recent reports betray a growing culture of deception, arrogance, willful obstructionism, and selective enforcement of the law at the U.S. Department of Justice.

First was a January 18 report that from a victim rights group that documents many of the statements on the website of the DoJ Office of Violence Against Women misrepresent the problem of partner abuse.

Then a February 3 USA Today column revealed Attorney General Eric Holder prevaricated when he made the claim that intimate partner homicide is the leading cause of death of Black women. The actual causes? Cancer, heart disease, and accidents.

Earlier this month week it was learned that the DoJ has been giving bottom-drawer treatment to Freedom of Information Act requests from conservatives. One of the requestors was Rep. Frank Wolf, Virginia Republican, whose FOIA request languished at the DoJ for five months. Deliciously, Wolf was recently named chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees the DoJ budget.

But the most explosive revelations center around the DoJ's handling of allegations of voter intimidation by the New Black Panther Party during the 2008 presidential election.

If you didn't see the riveting video, it features two Black Panthers dressed in paramilitary attire -- one wielding a billy club -- in front of a Philadelphia polling place. The two were shouting racial epithets and making threatening statements. Knowledgeable observers say the incident represents one of the most egregious violations of the Voting Rights Act they have ever seen.

Here's the improbable sequence of events:

On January 7, 2009, the DoJ Civil Rights Division filed a voter intimidation lawsuit against three men and the New Black Panther Party.

On January 20, President Obama was sworn into office as the nation's 44th president, vowing to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." Two weeks later Eric Holder was confirmed as the U.S. Attorney General.

The Black Panthers decided to not contest the allegations, and the DoJ was given a May 1 deadline to file for a default judgment. But DoJ Deputy Associate Attorney General Sam Hirsch, an Obama appointee, decided to look into the high-profile case.

Thumbing his nose at the considered arguments of six DoJ career attorneys, Hirsch actively participated in discussions that led to the lawsuit being dramatically scaled back. As a result, three defendants were let off the hook, and the "punishment" reduced to the gentlest of wrist-slaps – no fines or jail time, just cross your heart and promise you won't be naughty again.

AG Eric Holder knew about the case, as well. By the DoJ's own admission, "The Attorney General was made generally aware…that the Civil Rights Division was considering the appropriate actions to take in the New Black Panther Party litigation."

But no evidence that he or President Obama played an active role in the decision.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (CCR) is an independent, non-partisan agency established to investigate complaints that citizens were deprived of their right to vote. So when the Commission learned of the DoJ about-face, it decided to launch its own probe. The Commission held hearings, took depositions, and requested internal documents.

By law, the DoJ is required to cooperate fully with CCR investigations. Although the DoJ handed over some documents, it declined to share key emails. Overall, the DoJ refused to answer 18 interrogatories or produce documents in response to 22 separate requests.

Adding insult to injury, the DoJ ordered two of its most knowledgeable attorneys, Christian Adams and Christopher Coates, to not testify before the Commission.

In response, Adams resigned his high-level position with the DoJ, then went ahead and gave his testimony. Invoking whistleblower protections, Coates testified as well. To this day Coates continues as a DoJ employee, but for some odd reason has been relieved of his position as Chief of the Voting Section.

Christopher Coates provided the most damning revelation of all: The DoJ's reversal on the Black Panther case was not an isolated case of bureaucratic bungling. Instead, it represented a broader problem of politicized justice.

Coates testified that in a prior voting rights case involving a White plaintiff, lawyers had refused to work on the case, and one employee who did assist was "relentlessly harassed by Voting Section staff for his willingness as a minority to work on the case…Others assigned to the case were harassed in other ways, such as being badgered and baited about their evangelical religious views or their political beliefs."

On January 27, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released its bombshell report, Race Neutral Enforcement of the Law? The U.S. Department of Justice and the New Black Panther Party Litigation. The 210-page document was posted at the Commission's website. Concluding there was no "plausible explanation" for DoJ's actions, the report garnered extensive attention at the Washington Times and Fox News -- but received little play in the mainstream media.

Because of overlapping terms of office, the CCR members have been predominantly Republican. That situation changed when Obama's appointments recently took effect.

On February 11, the newly constituted Commission held its first meeting. As its first order of business, the CCR voted to suspend its probe of the Department of Justice's handling of the New Black Panther Party case and cease printing of the report.

So if you want to read the this-confirms-everything-I-suspected report, don't delay. Download it now. The report may not be on the Commission's website much longer.

And stay tuned. I predict we'll be hearing a lot more about this unraveling story in the weeks and months to come. ESR

 © Carey Roberts, 2011

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