The Justice Department refused Tuesday to turn over most of the information and documents sought by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights explaining why a civil complaint was dismissed against members of the New Black Panther Party who disrupted a Philadelphia polling place in the November 2008 elections.
In a 38-page response, the department objected — except for a few court records, letters and procedural documents — to “each and every” question and document request submitted by the commission, saying the subpoenas violated existing executive orders, privacy and privilege concerns, and were burdensome, vague and ambiguous.
The lengthy response, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times, also said the requested information and documents were protected by the attorney-client privilege or were not subject to disclosure because they included attorney or law enforcement work products.
The department also refused to release any information about an investigation of the New Black Panther Party case by its office of professional responsibility, saying the ongoing review was privileged information or was covered by the Privacy Act.
In an accompanying letter to the commission, Joseph H. Hunt, director of the Justice Department’s Federal Programs Branch, which oversees litigation matters, said the department is “constrained by the need to protect against disclosures that would harm its deliberative processes or that otherwise would undermine its ability to carry out its mission.”
Mr. Hunt added that the department “continues to evaluate whether it can provide further response consistent with the need to protect privileged information and may supplement this response at a later date.” He did not elaborate.
But Commissioner Todd Gaziano, an independent appointed by the House, questioned the department’s refusal to turn over the bulk of the requested information and documents.
“The department offered no arguments as to their legal position in denying the requests,” Mr. Gaziano said during an interview Tuesday. “This is just more delay, more stonewalling and without any justification.
“The department has no privilege in this matter other than executive privilege, and if the president wants to assert it, he should do so,” he said.
The Civil Rights Commission, frustrated by the Justice Department’s failure to explain the dismissal despite repeated written requests for information, issued subpoenas on Dec. 9 demanding records showing how the case was handled.
David P. Blackwood, the commission’s general counsel, said at the time that efforts since June to obtain an explanation had proceeded “without any success” and that the “dearth of cooperation” had prompted the panel to issue the subpoenas.
Mr. Blackwood noted that while the Justice Department had raised various concerns and matters of privilege in giving up any information or documents, cooperation with commission investigations was a mandatory statutory obligation.
“Moreover, due to the unique investigative role of the commission — akin to that of a congressional committee — disclosure to the commission of the information sought is both proper and required,” he said.
The commission had sought answers from the Justice Department on why a civil complaint against the New Black Panther Party and three of its members was dismissed after a federal judge in Philadelphia had ordered default judgments in the case.
The party had refused to respond to the charges or to appear in court.