Associate Attorney General Thomas J. Perrelli, the No. 3 official in the Obama Justice Department, was consulted and ultimately approved a decision in May to reverse course and drop a civil complaint accusing three members of the New Black Panther Party of intimidating voters in Philadelphia during November’s election, according to interviews.
The department’s career lawyers in the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division who pursued the complaint for five months had recommended that Justice seek sanctions against the party and three of its members after the government had already won a default judgment in federal court against the men.
Front-line lawyers were in the final stages of completing that work when they were unexpectedly told by their superiors in late April to seek a delay after a meeting between political appointees and career supervisors, according to federal records and interviews.
The delay was ordered by then-acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King after she discussed with Mr. Perrelli concerns about the case during one of their regular review meetings, according to the interviews.
Ms. King, a career senior executive service official, had been named by President Obama in January to temporarily fill the vacant political position of assistant attorney general for civil rights while a permanent choice could be made.
She and other career supervisors ultimately recommended dropping the case against two of the men and the party and seeking a restraining order against the one man who wielded a nightstick at the Philadelphia polling place. Mr. Perrelli approved that plan, officials said.
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Questions about how high inside the department the decision to drop the case went have persisted in Congress and in the media for weeks.
Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler told The Washington Times that the department has an “ongoing obligation” to be sure the claims it makes are supported by the facts and the law. She said that after a “thorough review” of the complaint, top career attorneys in the Civil Rights Division determined the “facts and the law did not support pursuing the claims against three of the defendants.”
“As a result, the department dismissed those claims,” she said. “We are committed to vigorous enforcement of the laws protecting anyone exercising his or her right to vote.”
While the Obama administration has vowed a new era of openness, department officials have refused to answer questions from Republican members of Congress on why the case was dismissed, claiming the information was “privileged,” according to congressional correspondence with the department.
Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican and a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee who has raised questions about the case, said he also was prevented from interviewing the front-line lawyers who brought the charges.
“Why am I being prevented from meeting with the trial team on this case?” Mr. Wolf asked. “There are many questions that need to be answered. This whole thing just stinks to high heaven.”
Ms. Schmaler said the department has tried to cooperate with Congress. “The Department responded to an earlier letter from Congressman Wolf in an effort to address his questions. Following that letter, the Department agreed to a meeting with Congressman Wolf and career attorneys, in which they made a good-faith effort to respond to his inquiries about this case. We will continue to try to clear up any confusion Congressman Wolf has about this case.”