The Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility has begun an official inquiry into the dismissal in May of a civil complaint against the New Black Panther Party and two of its members who disrupted a Philadelphia polling place during the November general elections.
The inquiry is disclosed in an Aug. 28 letter to Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee who first raised questions about the dismissal in May and asked unsuccessfully that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. make available the head of the department’s Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division for a closed-door briefing on the decision.
In the letter, Mary Patrice Brown, acting OPR counsel, told the veteran congressman from Texas that the office had “initiated an inquiry into the matter” and that it would “contact you with the results of our inquiry once it is completed.” A copy of the letter was obtained by The Washington Times.
“I am pleased that someone at the Justice Department is finally taking the dismissal of the New Black Panther Party case seriously,” Mr. Smith said Wednesday. “The Justice Department’s decision to drop a case against political allies who allegedly intimidated voters on Election Day 2008 reeks of political interference.”
Mr. Smith said the department’s refusal to provide Congress with an explanation for the dismissal “only further raises concerns that political favoritism played a role in this case.”
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“Voter intimidation threatens democracy,” he said. “These cases must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law without political considerations.”
In January, the Justice Department filed a civil complaint in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia against the New Black Panther Party, claiming two of its members in black berets, black combat boots, black shirts and black jackets with military insignias intimidated voters with racial insults, slurs and a nightstick. A third party member was accused of managing, directing and endorsing their behavior.
The complaint said two New Black Panthers engaged in “coercion, threats and intimidation racial threats and insults menacing and intimidating gestures and movements directed at individuals who were present to vote.” It said that unless prohibited by court sanctions, they would continue to direct intimidation, threats and coercion at voters and potential voters “by again deploying uniformed and armed members at the entrance to polling locations in future elections, both in Philadelphia and throughout the country.”
The original incident was captured on videotape and gained national attention after the video was distributed on YouTube.
Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican and a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, has unsuccessfully sought to interview the career lawyers involved in the case and has called on Mr. Holder to refile the civil complaint. He said he was “deeply troubled” by the dismissal, adding that “this stinks to high heaven.”
“After months of unanswered questions, incomplete and faulty excuses, and revelations of political influence, the Office of Professional Responsibility has agreed with our July 9 letter asking for a full investigation of the dismissal of this important voter intimidation case over the objections of both the career attorneys on the trial team and the department’s own appellate board,” he said Wednesday.
“I fully support OPR’s decision to investigate this dismissal and look forward to their report,” he said. “I hope the Civil Rights office also will agree that the case should be re-filed.”
OPR, which reports directly to the attorney general, is responsible for investigating allegations of misconduct involving department attorneys in the exercise of their authority to investigate, litigate or provide legal advice.
Justice spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said, “As a general policy, we don’t comment on ongoing OPR matters.”