Could it be that President Obama's legal team is imploding due to a voter intimidation case involving the New Black Panther Party? So many new developments regarding the Black Panther case occurred in the latter half of last week that it is hard keeping up with them all. But none of them look good for the Obama administration or for Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.'s Justice Department.
The case involves paramilitary-garbed Panthers caught on videotape (which was backed by copious testimony) engaged in what observers say were intimidating and racially charged activities outside a Philadelphia polling booth on presidential Election Day in 2008. Even though a judge was ready to enter a default judgment against the Black Panthers, based on a case brought by career attorneys at the Justice Department, the Obama administration suddenly decided last spring to drop three of the four cases and punish the final one with an incredibly weak injunction.
Controversy, accompanied by continued administration stonewalling, has ensued ever since.
The new developments last week were as follows:
First, a Web site called "Main Justice" reported on Wednesday (and we have since confirmed) that the Justice Department has, for now, ordered two key career attorneys not to comply with a subpoena about the case issued by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The commission, by law, has explicit power to issue subpoenas, and the law mandates that "all federal agencies shall cooperate fully with the commission." The Justice Department, however, is citing internal regulations stemming from a 1951 case to support its order to ignore the subpoena.
One of the attorneys, J. Christian Adams, has been advised by his personal attorney, former South Carolina Secretary of State Jim Miles, that failure to comply with the subpoena could put him at risk of prosecution. "I can't imagine," Mr. Miles told The Washington Times, "that a statute that gives rise to the power of a subpoena would be subjugated to some internal procedural personnel rule being promulgated by DoJ." In short, the department is stiffing the commission and unfairly putting its own employee in a legal bind.
Second, that same day, the two Republican House members with top-ranking jurisdiction over the Justice Department, Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia and Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, issued a joint statement calling Justice Department delays "a cover-up," and "a pretense to ignore inquiries from Congress and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights." At a hearing on Thursday, Mr. Smith said that "continued silence by the Justice Department is an implied admission of guilt that the case was dropped for purely political reasons."
Third, at the same hearing, Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, accused Justice Department Civil Rights Division chief Thomas Perez of not being "truthful" while under oath, to such an extent that "there are people who have gone to jail" for such a level of purported "dishonest[y]."
The disputed statement, from what appeared to be prepared remarks by Mr. Perez that he later repeated insistently, was that "the maximum penalty was sought and obtained" against the one Black Panther for whom the charges were not entirely dropped. The bizarrely weak penalty consisted of a mere injunction for the Black Panther not to brandish a weapon near a polling place, within Philadelphia, through Nov. 15, 2012. In short, he is prohibited, only within Philadelphia and only for four years, from doing something that is illegal anyway.
Such a slap on the wrist is far from the "maximum penalty" allowable for such voter intimidation. Most directly, the injunction could be far broader, not just limited to Philadelphia for four years. Also, harsher penalties than mere injunctions could conceivably be available. If the Justice Department sought a criminal indictment, for instance, Title 18, Section 245 of the U.S. Code provides that those found guilty of voter intimidation "shall be fined under this title, or imprisoned not more than one year, or both."
As all of this was going on, Deputy Attorney General David Ogden, the No. 2 man in the whole department, was announcing that very morning that he will resign after less than 10 months in office. Mr. Ogden - whose possible involvement in the Black Panther case had been specifically mentioned in the Civil Rights Commission's subpoena - became the third high-ranking Obama legal official to announce a resignation in the last month. He was preceded by White House counsel Gregory Craig and deputy White House counsel Cassandra Butts.
"Holder and them have done a terrible job on this," Mr. Wolf told The Washington Times. "This has just been handled so poorly.... You can't hide these things. There is something wrong here. There is something very wrong. When it all comes out, I think it will be very bad."
The congressman is probably right.