Jus­tice lawyer al­leges bias at agency

He tes­ti­fies that depart­ment was un­will­ing to pro­tect vot­ing rights of whites


A vet­eran Jus­tice Depart­ment lawyer ac­cused his agency Fri­day of be­ing un­will­ing to pur­sue racial dis­crim­i­na­tion cases on be­half of white vot­ers, turn­ing what had been a lower-level con­tro­versy into an es­ca­lat­ing po­lit­i­cal headache for the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Christo­pher Coates’s tes­ti­mony be­fore the U.S. Com­mis­sion on Civil Rights was the lat­est fall­out from the depart­ment’s han­dling of a 2008 voter-in­tim­i­da­tion case in­volv­ing the New Black Pan­ther Party. Con­ser­va­tives and some con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans ac­cuse Jus­tice of­fi­cials of im­prop­erly nar­row­ing the charges, al­le­ga­tions that they strongly dis­pute.

Filed weeks be­fore the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion took of­fice, the case fo­cused on two party mem­bers who stood in front of a polling place in Philadel­phia on Elec­tion Day 2008, one car­ry­ing a night­stick. The men were cap­tured on video and were ac­cused of try­ing to dis­cour­age some peo­ple from vot­ing.

Coates, for­mer head of the vot­ing sec­tion that brought the case, tes­ti­fied in de­fi­ance of his su­per­vi­sor’s in­struc­tions and has been granted whis­tle blower pro­tec­tion. Coates crit­i­cized what he called the “gut­ting” of the New Black Pan­thers case for “ir­ra­tional rea­sons,’’ say­ing the de­ci­sion was part of “deep-seated” op­po­si­tion among the depart­ment’s lead­ers to fil­ing vot­ing-rights cases against mi­nori­ties and cases that pro­tect whites.

“I had peo­ple who told me point-blank that [they] didn’t come to the vot­ing rights sec­tion to sue African Amer­i­can peo­ple,” said Coates, who trans­ferred to the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice in South Carolina in Jan­uary. “When you are paid by the tax­payer, that is to­tally in­de­fen­si­ble.’’

The rare spec­ta­cle of a Jus­tice Depart­ment lawyer pub­licly re­buk­ing the depart­ment’s lead­ers came amid height­ened le­gal and po­lit­i­cal fall­out from the case. The com­mis­sion is to is­sue a re­port on the mat­ter next month, and an in­ter vote

nal probe by the depart­ment’s Of­fice of Pro­fes­sional Re­spon­si­bil­ity is pend­ing.

Glenn A. Fine, the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s in­spec­tor gen­eral, re­cently be­gan his own in­ves­ti­ga­tion into whether the agency’s Civil Rights Di­vi­sion en­forces laws in a racially dis­crim­i­na­tory man­ner. It is con­sid­ered highly prob­a­ble that House Repub­li­cans will hold hear­ings if they take con­trol of the cham­ber af­ter midterm elec­tions in Novem­ber.

“We’re not go­ing to let this go,’’ said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.). “There is some­thing rot­ten go­ing on at the Jus­tice Depart­ment.’’

Jus­tice of­fi­cials vig­or­ously con­tested Coates’s al­le­ga­tions and ac­cused the com­mis­sion, which has been bur­row­ing into the New Black Pan­ther case for months, of a bi­ased probe based in­part on hearsay and un­sub­stan­ti­ated me­dia re­ports. A bloc of con­ser­va­tive mem­bers con­trols the com­mis­sion, formed 53 years ago to in­ves­ti­gate de­nials of civil rights.

“This so-called in­ves­ti­ga­tion is thin on facts and ev­i­dence and thick on rhetoric,’’ said Tracy Sch­maler, a Jus­tice Depart­ment spokes­woman. “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.’’

Jus­tice of­fi­cials tried to turn around the al­le­ga­tions, point­ing to in­ter­nal watchdog re­ports ac­cus­ing the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion of politicizing hir­ing in the civil rights di­vi­sion. The watchdogs con­cluded, for ex­am­ple, that the di­vi­sion’s for­mer head re­fused to hire lawyers who he la­beled “com­mies.”

“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,’’ Sch­maler said. “We have changed that. We have rein­vig­o­rated the Civil Rights Di­vi­sion.’’

Wade Hen­der­son, pres­i­dent of the Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence for Civil Rights, called the Civil Rights Com­mis­sion’s han­dling of the case “base­less sen­sa­tion­al­ism.” He ar­gued that no vot­ers had come for­ward to say they were in­tim­i­dated.

The con­tro­versy be­gan last year when the govern­ment nar­rowed the voter-in­tim­i­da­tion law­suit that had been filed against mem­bers of the New Black Pan­thers, drop­ping the party and one de­fen­dant from the case and fo­cus­ing only on the bearer of the stick. Of­fi­cials have said they lacked le­gal prece­dent and suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence to pur­sue the case more fully.

Jus­tice of­fi­cials who served in the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion called the de­ci­sion po­lit­i­cal, and the dis­pute be­came a ma­jor is­sue in con­ser­va­tive cir­cles. It has been slow to gain trac­tion among the gen­eral pub­lic but be­gan heat­ing up in July. For­mer Jus­tice lawyer J. Chris­tian Adams told the civil rights com­mis­sion that the case was nar­rowed be­cause some of his col­leagues were in­ter­ested in pro­tect­ing only mi­nori­ties.

De­fend­ers of the ad­min­is­tra­tion ac­cused Adams, who pub­li­cized the is­sue with reg­u­lar blog items and col­umns, of be­ing a con­ser­va­tive ac­tivist out to score po­lit­i­cal points. Coates was re­ferred to in a Jus­tice Depart­ment re­port on politi­ciza­tion of hir­ing dur­ing the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion as be­ing “a true mem­ber of the team” ac­cused of be­ing be­hind such prac­tices.

But Coates has a pedi­gree dif­fer­ent from that of many con­ser­va­tives. Hewas hired at Jus­tice dur­ing the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion in 1996 and had worked for the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union. Shel­don-Brad­shaw, a high­level Civil Rights Div ision of­fi­cial in the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, said Coates “is non­par­ti­san in how he en­forces vot­ing rights laws.’’

In his test­mony, Coates said the cur­rent Jus­tice Depart­ment is “at war” with “race-neu­tral” en­force­ment of civil rights laws. He also said there is ev­i­dence for broader pros­e­cu­tion of the New Black Pan­ther case.

“We had eye­wit­ness tes­ti­mony. We had video­tape. One of them had a weapon. They were hurl­ing racial slurs,” Coates said. “I’ve never been able to un­der­stand how any­one could ac­cuse us of not hav­ing a ba­sis of law in this case.”

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