Congressional Republicans on Thursday escalated their criticism of the Justice Department for dismissing a controversial voter-intimidation case, demanding that civil charges against the New Black Panther Party be restored. They also renewed their request to interview career attorneys who disagreed with the administration's decision to dismiss the charges.
Rep. Frank R. Wolf of Virginia, a senior Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, obtained an opinion Thursday from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) affirming that charges could legally be refiled without violating the double-jeopardy clause of the U.S. Constitution and said he thought Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. was obligated to refile the case.
"In all fairness, he has a duty to protect those seeking to vote and I remain deeply troubled by this questionable dismissal of an important voter-intimidation case in Philadelphia," Mr. Wolf told The Washington Times.
The Times on Thursday reported that Associate Attorney General Thomas J. Perrelli, the department's No. 3 political appointee, approved the decision to drop the case against the NBPP and its members even after the government had won judgments against them for their actions in November at a Philadelphia polling location.
Justice spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said the department has an "ongoing obligation" to be sure that claims it makes are supported by the facts and the law and a review of the NBPP complaint by "the top career attorneys in the Civil Rights Division" found that they did not.
She said Justice did obtain an injunction against the defendant who brandished a weapon at the polling place from doing so again and "will fully enforce the terms of that injunction."
Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, also Thursday renewed his request that Mr. Holder make available the head of the department's Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division for a closed-door briefing on its decision to seek the complaint's dismissal.
Mr. Smith, unsuccessful since May in getting answers to questions on whether political appointees were involved in the complaint's dismissal, wants to know why the department has refused to respond to congressional inquiries requesting specific information on the investigation.
"Time and again, I have sought information from the Justice Department regarding the sudden dismissal of a case against members of the New Black Panther Party," Mr. Smith said. "Time and again, the Justice Department has claimed there was no wrongful political interference in the dismissal of the case.
"Now, according to news reports, it appears the Justice Department's political appointees did in fact play a role in the dismissal of this case," he said.
In January, Justice filed a civil complaint in federal court in Philadelphia against the NBPP and three of its members. Two NBPP members, wearing black berets, black combat boots, black dress shirts and black jackets with military-style markings, were charged with intimidating voters, including brandishing a nightstick and issuing racial threats and racial insults. A third was accused of managing, directing and endorsing their behavior. The incident was captured on videotape.
A Justice memo shows that the front-line lawyers who brought the case decided as early as Dec. 22 to seek a complaint against the NBPP; its chairman, Malik Zulu Shabazz, a lawyer and D.C. resident; Minister King Samir Shabazz, a resident of Philadelphia and head of the Philadelphia NBPP chapter who was accused of wielding the nightstick; and Jerry Jackson, a resident of Philadelphia and a NBPP member.
Witnesses said Mr. Samir Shabazz, armed with the nightstick, and Mr. Jackson used racial slurs and made threats as they stood at the door of the polling place. The department's injunction against Mr. Samir Shabazz prohibits him from displaying a weapon at a polling place until 2012.
Mr. Jackson was an elected member of Philadelphia's 14th Ward Democratic Committee and was credentialed to be at the polling place Nov. 4 as an official Democratic Party polling watcher, according to the Philadelphia city commissioner's office. A check of his MySpace Web page shows similar taunts. It also shows him in numerous poses with a variety of weapons.
Records show Mr. Jackson obtained new credentials as a poll watcher "at any ward/division in Philadelphia" just days after the charges against him were dismissed.
None of the NBPP members responded to the charges or made any appearance in court.
Four months after the complaint was filed, at a time career lawyers who brought the charges were in the final stages of seeking actual sanctions, they were told by their superiors to seek a delay after a meeting between political appointees and career supervisors, according to federal records and interviews.
The delay was ordered by Loretta King, who was acting assistant attorney general, after she discussed concerns about the case with Mr. Perrelli. 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 the nightstick. Mr. Perrelli approved that plan, officials said.
None of the front-line lawyers has been made available for comment, and the department has yet to provide any records sought by The Times under a Freedom of Information Act request filed in May seeking documents detailing the decision process.
In an opinion sought by Mr. Wolf, the CRS said it "appears likely that the Double Jeopardy Clause would not prohibit the Justice Department from bringing a similar suit on the same or similar grounds against at least the Party and the individual members for whom the previous suit was dismissed."
Mr. Smith said if Mr. Perrelli knew about discussions to dismiss the complaint, the Justice Department's responses to Congress "make no mention of his involvement. Instead, he said, the department offered "vague justifications" for the dismissal, none of which included a legitimate explanation.
Ms. King and Steve Rosenbaum, chief of the department's special litigation section, were scheduled to brief Mr. Smith and committee Chairman John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat, on Thursday, but conflicting schedules have forced that meeting into next month.