Po­lit­i­cal ap­pointees drop voter in­tim­i­da­tion case against Pan­thers

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY JERRY SEPER

Jus­tice Depart­ment po­lit­i­cal ap­pointees over­ruled ca­reer lawyers and ended a civil com­plaint ac­cus­ing three mem­bers of the New Black Pan­ther Party for Self-De­fense of wield­ing a night­stick and in­tim­i­dat­ing vot­ers at a Philadel­phia polling place last Elec­tion Day, ac­cord­ing to doc­u­ments and in­ter­views.

The in­ci­dent — which gained na­tional at­ten­tion when it was cap­tured on video­tape and dis­trib­uted on YouTube — had prompted the gov­ern­ment to sue the men, say­ing they vi­o­lated the 1965 Vot­ing Rights Act by scar­ing would-be vot­ers with the weapon, racial slurs and mil­i­tary-style uni­forms.

Ca­reer lawyers pur­sued the case for months, in­clud­ing ob­tain­ing an af­fi­davit from a prom­i­nent 1960s civil rights ac­tivist who wit­nessed the con­fronta­tion and de­scribed it as “the most bla­tant form of voter in­tim­i­da­tion” that he had seen, even dur­ing the vot­ing rights cri­sis in Mis­sis­sippi a half­cen­tury ago.

The lawyers also had as­cer­tained that one of the three men had gained ac­cess to the polling place by se­cur­ing a cre­den­tial as a Demo­cratic poll watcher, ac­cord­ing to in­ter­views and doc­u­ments re­viewed by The Wash­ing­ton Times.

The ca­reer Jus­tice lawyers were on the verge of se­cur­ing sanc­tions against the men ear­lier in May when their su­pe­ri­ors or- dered them to re­verse course, ac­cord­ing to in­ter­views and doc­u­ments. The court had al­ready en­tered a de­fault judg­ment against the men on April 20.

A Jus­tice Depart­ment spokesman on May 28 con­firmed that the agency had dropped the case, dis­miss­ing two of the men from the law­suit with no penalty and winning an or­der against the third man that sim­ply pro­hibits him from bring­ing a weapon to a polling place in fu­ture elec­tions.

The depart­ment was “suc­cess- one ex­er­cis­ing his or her sa­cred right to vote.”

Court records re­viewed by The Times show that ca­reer Jus­tice lawyers were seek­ing a de­fault judg­ment and penal­ties against the three men as re­cently as May 5, be­fore abruptly end­ing their pur­suit 10 days later.

Peo­ple di­rectly fa­mil­iar with the case, who spoke only on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause of fear of ret­ri­bu­tion, said ca­reer lawyers in two sep­a­rate Jus­tice offices had rec­om­mended pro­ceed-

Poll watcher Bar­tle Bull said the “clear pur­pose” of what the Pan­thers were do­ing was to “in­tim­i­date vot­ers with whom they did not agree.” He also said he over­heard one of the men tell a white poll watcher: “You are about to be ruled by the black man, cracker.”

ful in ob­tain­ing an in­junc­tion that pro­hibits the de­fen­dant who bran­dished a weapon out­side a Philadel­phia polling place from do­ing so again,” spokesman Ale­jan­dro Mi­yar said. “Claims were dis­missed against the other de­fen­dants based on a care­ful as­sess­ment of the facts and the law.”

Mr. Mi­yar de­clined to elab­o­rate about any in­ter­nal dis­pute be­tween ca­reer and po­lit­i­cal of­fi­cials, say­ing only that the depart­ment is “com­mit­ted to the vig­or­ous prose­cu­tion of those who in­tim­i­date, threaten or co­erce any- ing to de­fault judg­ment be­fore po­lit­i­cal su­pe­ri­ors over­ruled them.

Ten­sions be­tween ca­reer lawyers and po­lit­i­cal ap­pointees in­side the Jus­tice Depart­ment have been a sen­si­tive mat­ter since al­le­ga­tions sur­faced dur­ing the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion that high­erups had ig­nored or re­versed staff lawyers and that some U.S. at­tor­neys had been re­moved or se­lected for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons.

Dur­ing his Jan­uary con­fir­ma­tion hear­ings, At­tor­ney Gen­eral Eric H. Holder Jr. said that dur­ing his lengthy Jus­tice De­part- ment ten­ure, the ca­reer lawyers were “my teach­ers, my col­leagues and my friends” and de­scribed them as the “back­bone” of the depart­ment.

“If I am con­firmed as at­tor­ney gen­eral, I will lis­ten to them, re­spect them and make them proud of the vi­tal goals we will pur­sue to­gether,” he said.

Jus­tice of­fi­cials de­clined to say whether Mr. Holder or other se­nior Jus­tice of­fi­cials be­came in­volved in the case, say­ing they don’t dis­cuss in­ter­nal de­lib­era- tions.

The civil suit filed Jan. 7 iden­ti­fied the three men as mem­bers of the Pan­thers and said they wore mil­i­tary-style uni­forms, black berets, com­bat boots, bat­tle-dress pants, black jack­ets with mil­i­tarystyle in­signias and were armed with “a danger­ous weapon”and used racial slurs and in­sults to scare would-be vot­ers and those there to as­sist them at the Philadel­phia polling lo­ca­tion on Nov. 4.

To sup­port its ev­i­dence, the gov­ern­ment had se­cured an affi- davit from Bar­tle Bull, a long­time civil rights ac­tivist and for­mer aide to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. Mr. Bull said in a sworn state­ment dated April 7 that he was serv­ing in Novem­ber as a cre­den­tialed poll watcher in Philadel­phia when he saw the three uni­formed Pan­thers con­front and in­tim­i­date vot­ers with a night­stick.

In­ex­pli­ca­bly, the gov­ern­ment did not en­ter the af­fi­davit in the court case, ac­cord­ing to the files.

“In my opin­ion, the men cre­ated an in­tim­i­dat­ing pres­ence at the en­trance to a poll,” he de­clared. “In all my ex­pe­ri­ence in pol­i­tics, in civil rights lit­i­ga­tion and in my ef­forts in the 1960s to se­cure the right to vote in Mis­sis­sippi [. . . ] I have never en­coun­tered or heard of an­other in­stance in the United States where armed and uni­formed men blocked the en­trance to a polling lo­ca­tion.”

Mr. Bull said the “clear pur­pose” of what the Pan­thers were do­ing was to “in­tim­i­date vot­ers with whom they did not agree.” He also said he over­heard one of the men tell a white poll watcher: “You are about to be ruled by the black man, cracker.”

He called their con­duct an “ou­tra­geous af­front to Amer­i­can democ­racy and the rights of vot­ers to par­tic­i­pate in an elec­tion without fear.” He said it was a “racially mo­ti­vated ef­fort to limit both poll watch­ers aid­ing vot­ers, as well as vot­ers with whom the men did not agree.”

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