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Justice IG probing Black Panther case

Civil Rights Division the target in suspected worker harassment

- The Washington Times - Monday, September 13, 2010

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."

Mr. Smith said he was "pleased" to hear that Mr. Fine's office was looking into the matter. He said recent allegations of politicization within the Justice Department had raised "serious concerns."

"In order to preserve equality under the law, we must ensure that the Justice Department enforces the law without prejudice. I look forward to seeing the results of Inspector General Fine's review of this matter," he said in a statement.

The OPR probe of the New Black Panther Party case began in August 2009 and has never been made public.

The order giving jurisdiction to OPR to investigate the actions of attorneys in the exercise of their legal authority — up to and including the attorney general — was first issued by Attorney General Janet Reno during the Bill Clinton administration. The order was reissued by Attorney General John Ashcroft during President George W. Bush's administration.

Because the order was later codified by Congress, it requires congressional action to change.

The civil complaint was filed in January accusing the New Black Panther Party and two of its members of intimidating voters with racial insults, slurs and a nightstick. A third party member was accused of directing and endorsing their behavior. The incident was captured on videotape and gained national attention after it was shown on YouTube.com.

The charges were dismissed against the party, its chairman, Malik Zulu Shabazz, and Jerry Jackson, a Philadelphia party member. Justice later sought an injunction against Minister King Samir Shabazz, who carried the nightstick, barring him from displaying weapons at polling places until 2012.

"OPR is investigating the department's handling of the New Black Panther Party case and has been doing so for more than a year," Mr. Fine said in his most recent letter. "In response to my most recent request, OPR officials have informed us that they are near the end of their investigation and are beginning to draft their report of investigation."

Mr. Fine noted that his reluctance to investigate the New Black Panther Party case was not motivated by any hesitancy to investigate the department's senior political leadership. He said the long record of his office demonstrates its willingness to pursue investigations, audits, inspections and reviews throughout the department regardless of the potential reaction by or impact on the department's leadership.

He said he thinks his office has the authority to conduct what he described as "the broader program review" regarding the civil rights division's enforcement of voting rights laws — concerns raised by Mr. Lamar and Mr. Wolf.

Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler has noted that as a general policy, the department does not comment on personnel matters, but she said she could confirm that Mr. Coates had begun an 18-month detail with the U.S. attorney's office in South Carolina, beginning in January.

Ms. Schmaler also said the decision to move Mr. Coates to a new position within the department had nothing to do with the New Black Panther Party case but was the result of conversations Mr. Coates initiated with officials within the civil rights division earlier this year.

She also dismissed Mr. Adams' accusations as a "good faith disagreement" with ulterior motives.

"It is not uncommon for attorneys within the department to have good faith disagreements about the appropriate course of action in a particular case, although it is regrettable when a former department attorney distorts the facts and makes baseless allegations to promote his or her agenda," she said in a statement.

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