Justice IG probing Black Panther case

Civil Rights Division the target in suspected worker harassment

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The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division — in the wake of the New Black Panther Party case — is being investigated by the department’s office of inspector general to determine whether voting section employees have been harassed for participating in specific investigations or prosecutions.

In an end run around policy barring IG investigations of Justice Department litigators, Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said his office will review what types of cases are being investigated, whether there have been changes in enforcement policies and procedures, and whether the civil rights laws are being enforced in a non-discriminatory manner.

Christopher Coates, the veteran Justice Department voting section chief who recommended going forward on the civil complaint against the New Black Panther Party, was removed from his post and transferred to the U.S. attorney’s office in South Carolina. New Black Panther Party members had disrupted a Philadelphia polling place in the November 2008 elections, one of whom intimidated would-be voters with a nightstick.

J. Christian Adams, the lead attorney in the case, resigned, citing what he called concerns about the Justice Department’s refusal to prosecute the New Black Panther Party case after a federal judge in Philadelphia had ruled in favor of the government’s case.

Mr. Adams accused Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. of dropping the charges for racially motivated reasons, saying that he and other Justice Department lawyers working on the case were ordered to dismiss it.

In a letter Monday to Republican Reps. Lamar Smith of Texas and Frank R. Wolf of Virginia, Mr. Fine said he has stated publicly “on many occasions that I believe the provision of the Inspector General’s Act that removes the OIG’s jurisdiction investigation of department attorneys’ handling of litigation should be changed.” The Washington Times obtained a copy of the letter.

“But unless and until the law is changed, I have an obligation to follow it,” he said. “However, we believe we do have the authority to conduct the broader program review … regarding the Civil Rights Division’s enforcement of voting rights law, and we intend to conduct such a review.”

Mr. Fine noted that while the review will include information about such cases as the New Black Panther Party matter and others, it will be focused “more broadly on the overall enforcement of civil rights laws by the Voting Section rather than on a single case.”

Mr. Smith and Mr. Wolf had raised concerns in July and August regarding the dismissal by the Justice Department of a civil complaint against the New Black Panther Party, in addition to broader allegations regarding the civil rights division’s enforcement of federal voting rights laws.

The two lawmakers focused on “potential improprieties” in the department’s dismissal of the complaint brought against the New Black Panther Party after its members disrupted the Philadelphia polling place.

Mr. Fine responded at the time in a terse letter, saying that while he should be able to conduct the inquiry, he was powerless to do so because Congress had stripped him of that authority — giving it, instead, to the office of professional responsibility (OPR). He said that, unlike all other inspectors general who have unlimited jurisdiction to investigate all claims of wrongdoing inside their agencies, his office did not.

And while Mr. Fine had advocated expanding his jurisdiction to allow him to investigate all suspected wrongdoing within the department, Congress has not seen fit to do so.

“Unfortunately, unlike all other OIGs which have unlimited jurisdiction to investigate all allegations of waste, fraud or abuse within their agencies, the Department of Justice OIG does not,” he wrote. “For several years, I have expressed my position that Congress should change this jurisdiction.

“I have raised various arguments for this change including … the independence issues that arise because OPR reports to the attorney general,” he said.

Mr. Wolf has noted that OPR reports directly to the attorney general, saying he did not think the office was “capable of conducting an unbiased and independent review of this case, given that it reports to a political appointee.”

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