Justice Dept. moves Panthers pursuer to S.C.

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The veteran Justice Department voting rights section chief who recommended going forward on a civil complaint against members of the New Black Panther Party after they disrupted a Pennsylvania polling place in last year’s elections has been removed from his post and transferred to the U.S. attorney’s office in South Carolina.

Justice Department officials confirmed Monday that Christopher Coates, who signed off on the complaint’s filing in federal court in Philadelphia in January accusing the party and three of its members of civil rights violations, would begin his new assignment next month.

The complaint, which accused party members of intimidating voters at a Philadelphia polling place while wearing black berets, black combat boots, black dress shirts and black jackets with military-style markings, and wielding a nightstick, was later dismissed by Obama administration political appointees at the Justice Department.

The incident gained national attention when it was captured on videotape and distributed on YouTube.

The dismissal resulted in outrage by some Republican members of Congress and in a formal investigation by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which subpoenaed Mr. Coates and J. Christian Adams, the lead attorney in the case, to testify on why the complaint was dismissed. The commission also is seeking documents to explain why the charges were dropped just as a federal judge was about to approve sanctions.

Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler on Monday said that as a general policy, the department does not comment on personnel matters, but she said she could confirm that Mr. Coates continues to be a Justice employee and will begin an 18-month detail with the U.S. attorney’s office in South Carolina, beginning in January.

Ms. Schmaler also said the decision to move Mr. Coates to a new position within the department had nothing to do with the New Black Panther Party case but was the result of conversations Mr. Coates initiated with officials within the Civil Rights Division earlier this year.

She did not elaborate.

Mr. Coates declined to comment and referred inquiries Monday to the department’s public affairs office.

Kevin McDonald, spokesman for U.S. Attorney W. Walter Wilkins in Columbia, S.C., confirmed Monday that Mr. Coates had been “detailed” to that office and that officials there were “looking forward to his arrival.” He said the veteran civil rights attorney had been assigned to the office’s criminal division.

“It is our understanding he was willing to take the detail, and we look forward to him being on the job,” Mr. McDonald said.

Justice Department insiders said Mr. Coates’ transfer was not unexpected, despite the fact that many within the department consider the veteran prosecutor as key to efforts by Justice to apply federal civil rights laws in a fair and neutral manner.

Members of the Civil Rights Commission also have questioned whether the decision to drop the New Black Panther Party complaint constituted a departure from long-standing enforcement policy and whether the dismissal might lead to more voter intimidation.

Commissioner Todd Gaziano, a former Justice Department lawyer who served in the Office of Legal Counsel during the Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations, said the dismissal had the potential to significantly change enforcement of the Voting Rights Act “for good or for bad.”

In a letter to the Justice Department in June, Commission Vice Chairman Abigail Thernstrom and Commissioner Ashley L. Taylor Jr. said they were “gravely concerned” that the dismissal “weakens the agency’s moral obligation to prevent voting rights violations, including acts of voter intimidation or vote suppression.”

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