Justice Department chided for dragging feet in Panther probe
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.