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Justice Dept. moves Panthers pursuer to S.C.
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."
"We cannot understand the rationale for this case's dismissal and fear that it will confuse the public on how the Department of Justice will respond to claims of voter intimidation or voter suppression in the future," they wrote.
Earlier this month, Joseph H. Hunt, director of the Justice Department's Federal Programs Branch, told Mr. Coates and Mr. Adams not to cooperate with the commission's investigation, citing what he described as "well-established" and "lawful" department guidelines.
Mr. Hunt also said the Civil Rights Commission had no authority to enforce its subpoenas and had the ability only to make referrals to the Justice Department recommending that a criminal case be opened.
His comments, outlined in a letter, were in response to concerns raised by Mr. Adams, who -- through his attorney, Jim Miles of Lexington, S.C. -- asked whether he would be subject to prosecution if he declined to respond to a commission subpoena.
Mr. Miles said he thought Mr. Adams had a "statutory obligation superior to that imposed by the Department of Justice" and that his refusal to cooperate might subject him to imprisonment or contempt charges.
Mr. Hunt had said there was "no reasonable likelihood of imprisonment" for Mr. Adams because "the Department of Justice itself has instructed your client not to provide any information (either via testimony or documents) to the commission."
Mr. Miles on Monday said he was surprised by the transfer.
"As it has been explained to me, Mr. Coates was an attorney of great skill, and it is ironic he would be moved out of that position," Mr. Miles said. "But I assure you his quality of life will be substantially improved by moving to South Carolina out of the Washington Beltway area."
Mr. Miles said he had no way of knowing whether circumstances would impact his client, but added that he was "amazed" that the Justice Department had "gone to such length, depth and height to torch the disclosure of its decision-making process in this case."
Career attorneys in the Justice Department's Voting Rights section had decided as early as Dec. 22, 2008, to seek charges in the New Black Panther Party case.
The decision to dismiss the complaint came from then-Acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King after an April 2009 meeting she had with Associate Attorney General Thomas J. Perrelli, the department's No. 3 political appointee, according to interviews with lawyers familiar with the case.
At the time, the career attorneys wanted the department to seek sanctions in the case because the government already had won a default judgment. They were in the final stages of completing that work when they were told to seek a delay, according to federal records and interviews with lawyers familiar with the case.
The complaint had accused the New Black Panther Party, its chairman, Malik Zulu Shabazz, a D.C. lawyer, Minister King Samir Shabazz, head of the Philadelphia chapter, and Jerry Jackson, a Philadelphia party member. Justice later sought an injunction against Samir Shabazz, who carried the nightstick, barring him from displaying weapons at polling places until 2012.
Party members have not returned numerous telephone messages and e-mails for comment, but told the Associated Press earlier this month in Dallas that the Justice Department was correct in dismissing the complaint. Malik Shabazz described the complaint as a "political witch hunt" aimed at discrediting Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. - the first black man to be named to the post.
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