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Senior Republican wants answers on Panther case

- The Washington Times - Friday, July 31, 2009

The ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee wants a closed-door briefing with the head of the Justice Department's Voting Rights Section on Friday over the department's decision to seek a dismissal in a voter intimidation case against the New Black Panther Party.

Texas Rep. Lamar Smith said he has been unsuccessful since May in getting answers on whether political appointees were involved in the dismissal of three of four counts in the case after the Justice Department had won default judgments on all counts and why the department has refused to respond to congressional inquiries 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 involving voter intimidation on Election Day 2008," Mr. Smith said. "Time and again, the Justice Department has claimed there was no wrongful political interference in the dismissal of the case, which resulted in the president's political allies getting a free pass.

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"Now, according to news reports, it appears the Justice Departments political appointees did in fact play a role in the dismissal of this case," he said.

Mr. Smith, citing a report Thursday in The Washington Times, said Associate Attorney General Thomas J. Perrelli knew about discussions to dismiss the complaint, but the Justice Departments responses to Congress "make no mention of his involvement in the decision-making process.


The election-day incident gained national attention when it was captured by a voter-fraud citizen activist group on videotape and distributed on YouTube (below).


"Instead, they continually refer to vague justifications for the Obama Justice Departments actions, none of which include a legitimate explanation for why a case would be dropped," he said. "It is clear that political appointees at the Justice Department allowed career employees to be pressured to drop a case against the presidents political allies.That is politicizing justice and it undermines democracy."

Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican and a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, said on the House floor Thursday he was "deeply troubled by the Department of Justices questionable dismissal of an important voter intimidation case in Philadelphia, where I grew up and my father was a policeman."

"I have grave concerns about the departments dismissal of this case. Congress must use its oversight to maintain the integrity of our voting system. All the documents surrounding this case need to be made public," Mr. Wolf said.

Mr. Wolf said he has been prevented by the Justice Department since May from meeting with the career lawyers who brought the complaint. He wants the department to explain why.

Mr. Smith also said Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. "must come clean to Congress" about the role his political appointees played in the dismissal and disciplinary action must be taken against anyone who "applied political pressure to sway a law enforcement matter.

"The case has come under scrutiny by members of Congress because it was abruptly dismissed without explanation when the Obama administration took over the Justice Department," he said.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King and Steve Rosenbaum, chief of the department's special litigation section, were scheduled to brief Mr. Smith and House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, Michigan Democrat, on Friday.

The Times reported on Thursday that Mr. Perrelli, the No. 3 official at Justice, approved a decision in May to drop a civil complaint accusing three members of the New Black Panther Party of intimidating voters in Philadelphia during November's election.

Career lawyers in the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division, who pursued the complaint for five months, had recommended that the department seek sanctions against the party and three of its members after the government won a default judgment in federal court.

The front-line lawyers were in the final stages of completing that work when they were told by 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 Ms. King after discussions with Mr. Perrelli, according to Justice Department officials. Ms. King 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. Mr. Perrelli approved that plan, the officials said.

Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said 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."

Ms. Schmaler also said the department has tried to cooperate with Congress and agreed to a meeting with Mr. 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."

Mr. Smith and Mr. Wolf have been joined in their call for an investigation of the matter by other Republican lawmakers, including Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, Rep. Steve King of Iowa, Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona and Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas.