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Justice rebuffs Panthers subpoena
Question of the Day
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.
The department's Voting Rights Section was in the final stages of seeking the judgments when Loretta King, who was serving as acting assistant attorney general, ordered a delay.
The delay came after she met with Associate Attorney General Thomas J. Perrelli, the department's No. 3 political appointee, who approved the dismissal, according to interviews with department officials who sought anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the case.
The Justice Department filed a civil complaint in January 2009 in Philadelphia against the party after two of its members in black berets, black combat boots, black shirts and black jackets purportedly intimidated voters with racial insults, slurs and a nightstick. A third party member was accused of managing, directing and endorsing their behavior. The incident was captured on videotape.
Four months later, the Justice Department dropped the charges, saying that "the facts and the law did not support pursuing" them.
In August, Mary Patrice Brown, acting counsel of the department's office of professional responsibility, announced that it had "initiated an inquiry into the matter." The office investigates suspected misconduct by department lawyers.
Among the documents being sought by the commission are witness statements, copies of any investigation conducted by the Justice Department, reports of suspected voting intimidation, all documents that influenced the decision to drop three of the defendants as parties to the case, and documents regarding communications by Mrs. King, Mr. Perrelli and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. about the case.
The civil complaint accused Minister King Samir Shabazz, head of the Philadelphia chapter, and Jerry Jackson, a Philadelphia party member, of intimidating voters at the polling place. A third party member, Chairman Malik Zulu Shabazz, a lawyer and D.C. resident, was accused of directing and endorsing their behavior.
The party members have not been available for comment. The department obtained an injunction against Mr. Samir Shabazz that prohibits him from brandishing a weapon outside a polling place until 2012.
The Justice Department response also noted that career-supervising attorneys with more than 60 years of experience at the department decided not to seek sanctions "after a thorough review of the facts and applicable legal precedent."
"Political considerations had no role in that decision and reports that political appointees interfered with the advice of career attorneys are false," the response said. "Although none of the defendants responded to the complaint, that did not absolve the government of its obligation to ensure that any relief sought is consistent with the facts and the law and supported by the evidence."
According to the response, the department is "strongly committed to the enforcement of laws aimed at protecting the right of citizens to vote."
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