Give credit for honorable persistence to Northern Virginia's veteran Republican congressman, Frank Wolf, and to Texas Republican Rep. Lamar Smith. For good reason, they refuse to let the Justice Department bury questions about a voter-intimidation case against the New Black Panther Party.
The case involves two Black Panthers who stood outside a Philadelphia polling place in November 2008 while wearing paramilitary garb and using racial epithets, while one of them brandished a nightstick. The Obama Justice Department dropped three out of four charges in the case last May after the cases, in effect, had already been won.
At every turn, the Justice Department has stonewalled the two lawmakers and others wanting an explanation for the dismissal. Since September, the department's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) supposedly has been conducting an investigation into why the charges were dropped. To outside observers, that "investigation" has seemed lethargic at best. Meanwhile, OPR chief Mary Patrice Brown reportedly is on the verge of an Obama nomination for a federal judgeship, for which she is being vetted by some of the same people who presumably would be questioned in the Black Panther probe.
OPR also came under fire two weeks ago when the department's senior career officer, David Margolis, overruled the office and criticized its shoddy work on its review of the conduct of two George W. Bush-era lawyers who wrote memos on enhanced interrogation of suspected terrorists.
In light of OPR's own apparent or potential politicization, Mr. Wolf asked the Justice Department's inspector general, Glenn A. Fine, to conduct his own inquiry into the mishandling of the Black Panther case. In early February, Mr. Fine declined, saying such an investigation is out of the scope of his responsibilities - although, he added, he had long told Congress that such questions should indeed be within his purview.
Enter Mr. Wolf again, this time joined by Mr. Smith. On March 2, they sent another letter to Mr. Fine, urging the IG to reconsider because of "the host of troubling questions about whether the Department's political appointees abused their power in this case for political purposes." They listed at least five major questions they think the IG, not OPR, can best answer, including "whether White House officials attempted for partisan political purposes to influence the [Black Panther] case [and] whether senior Department management officials and political appointees actually colluded for these purposes with White House officials to derail the [Black Panther] case or cases against minority defendants in general." They wrote that those "larger issues in this affair, whether for the pursuit of impartial justice, the pursuit of criminal justice for government officials or the credibility of the Department, lie within your jurisdiction, not OPR's."
This point is important. At some level, there needs to be some independent authority, untainted by political entanglements, who can investigate allegations of improper political entanglements. The congressmen note that Mr. Fine and OPR conducted simultaneous and complementary investigations into the firing of eight U.S. attorneys by the Bush administration when some of the same considerations applied.
One way or another, the truth will get out. It doesn't take Inspector Clouseau to figure out that if the Justice Department has the image of springing Panthers from the penalty box, it looks mighty suspicious.