Jus­tice Depart­ment chided for drag­ging feet in Pan­ther probe

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY JERRY SEPER

The U.S. Com­mis­sion on Civil Rights asked At­tor­ney Gen­eral Eric H. Holder Jr. Sept. 30 to name a Jus­tice Depart­ment of­fi­cial to over­see the pro­duc­tion of what it called “our over­due in­for­ma­tion re­quests” for doc­u­ments in the dis­missal of a civil com­plaint against mem­bers of the New Black Pan­ther Party ac­cused of dis­rupt­ing a Philadel­phia polling place in the Novem­ber elec­tions.

Com­mis­sion Chair­man Ger­ald A. Reynolds said in a let­ter that the depart­ment has been “largely non-re­spon­sive” to re­quests for in­for­ma­tion since ques­tions about the dis­missal were first raised in June and had turned over “none of the doc­u­ments” be­ing sought.

Mr. Reynolds said that af­ter seek­ing to work with depart­ment sub­or­di­nates to get ac­cess to the doc­u­ments, the com­mis­sion turned di­rectly to Mr. Holder in Au­gust but had still not re­ceived any of the re­quested in­for­ma­tion, in­clud­ing doc­u­ments on pre­vi­ous voter in­tim­i­da­tion in­ves­ti­ga­tions “so we could de­ter­mine whether the depart­ment’s action in the NBPP case con­sti­tutes a change in pol­icy and, if so, what the im­pli­ca­tions of that change might be.”

He said the com­mis­sion knew the depart­ment’s Of­fice of Pro­fes­sional Re­spon­si­bil­ity (OPR) had be­gun an in­quiry into the case and that the depart­ment had asked to de­lay any re­sponse un­til that in­ves­ti­ga­tion was com­plete, but he said the com­mis­sion would be “sen­si­tive to OPR’s in­ter­nal ethics re­view as we move for­ward with our own in­quiry.”

“The com­mis­sion will work to ac­com­mo­date any le­git­i­mate con­cerns the depart­ment may have re­gard­ing spe­cific re­quests for in­for­ma­tion once the depart­ment be­gins its pro­duc­tion,” he said.

The com­mis­sion voted in early Septem­ber to in­ves­ti­gate the mat­ter, say­ing it would make an “in­de­pen­dent judg­ment re­gard­ing the mer­its of the NBPP en­force­ment ac­tions (re­gard­less of how the de­ci­sions were made) and the po­ten­tial im­pact on fu­ture vo­ter­in­tim­i­da­tion en­force­ment by the depart­ment.”

The com­mis­sion wants to know why the Jus­tice Depart­ment dis­missed a civil com­plaint ac­cus­ing mem­bers of the New Black Pan- ther Party of dis­rupt­ing a Philadel­phia polling place dur­ing last year’s elec­tion, say­ing the depart­ment had of­fered only “weak jus­ti­fi­ca­tions.”

Matthew A. Miller, Jus­tice Depart­ment spokesman, said the depart­ment “vig­or­ously en­forces vot­ing rights laws,” not­ing that it had ob­tained an in­junc­tion against the de­fen­dant who held a night­stick in front of a polling place dur­ing vot­ing hours.

“The depart­ment will fully en­force its terms,” he said, not­ing that the com­mis­sion pre­vi­ously re­quested the depart­ment ex­am­ine the case and an in­quiry is un­der way to de­ter­mine whether fur­ther re­view is war­ranted.

“Ca­reer su­per­vis­ing at­tor­neys who have over 60 years of ex­pe­ri­ence at the Depart­ment of Jus­tice [. . . ] made the de­ci­sions in this case af­ter a thor­ough re­view of the facts and ap­pli­ca­ble le­gal prece­dent,” he said.

But Mr. Reynolds, a for­mer deputy as­so­ciate at­tor­ney gen­eral un­der Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush, has voiced con­cerns that the le­gal prece­dent set by the depart­ment in its May de­ci­sion to drop the case against three of four named de­fen­dants would en­cour­age “other hate groups” to act sim­i­larly at polling lo­ca­tions in the fu­ture. He also has charged that other groups might not have been treated so le­niently.

“If you swap out the New Black Pan­ther Party in this case for neoNazi groups or the Ku Klux Klan, you likely would have had a dif­fer­ent out­come,” he said in an Au­gust in­ter­view. “A sin­gle law, a sin­gle rule should be ap­plied across the board.”

The com­mis­sion is an in­de­pen­dent, fact-find­ing body charged with in­ves­ti­gat­ing civil rights com­plaints and mak­ing rec­om­men­da­tions to the fed­eral gov­ern­ment about how to fix prob­lems it un­cov­ers.

In Jan­uary, the Jus­tice Depart­ment filed a civil com­plaint in Philadel­phia against the New Black Pan­ther Party af­ter two of its mem­bers in black berets, black com­bat boots, black shirts and black jack­ets pur­port­edly in­tim­i­dated vot­ers with racial in­sults, slurs and a night­stick. A third party mem­ber was ac­cused of manag­ing, di­rect­ing and en­dors­ing their be­hav­ior. The in­ci­dent was cap­tured on video­tape.

Four months later, the Jus­tice Depart­ment dropped the charges against all but one of the de­fen­dants, say­ing “the facts and the law did not sup­port pur­su­ing” them. The depart­ment also said the New Black Pan­ther Party had dis­avowed what hap­pened in Philadel­phia, had sus­pended that city’s chap­ter and that one of the Pan­thers, Jerry Jack­son, had been al­lowed by Philadel­phia po­lice to stay at the polling place as a cer­ti­fied Demo­cratic poll watcher.

Be­fore the charges were dropped, a fed­eral judge in April had or­dered de­fault judg­ments against the Pan­thers af­ter they re­fused to re­spond to the charges or ap­pear in court. The Jus­tice Depart­ment also was in the fi­nal stages of seek­ing sanc­tions when a de­lay in the pro­ceed­ings was or­dered by Loretta King, act­ing as­sis­tant at­tor­ney gen­eral.

The rul­ing was is­sued af­ter she met with As­so­ciate At­tor­ney Gen­eral Thomas J. Per­relli, the depart­ment’s No. 3 po­lit­i­cal ap­pointee, who ap­proved the de­ci­sion, ac­cord­ing to in­ter­views with depart­ment of­fi­cials who sought anonymity be­cause they were not au­tho­rized to speak pub­licly about the case.

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