EDITORIAL: Black Panther case roars back to life

New evidence undermines Justice Department spin

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Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights, is in big trouble. The public-interest group Judicial Watch yesterday released a 62-page index of documents regarding the New Black Panther Party voter-intimidation case that undermines the credibility of Mr. Perez and of the Department of Justice under Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.

For more than a year, The Washington Times has been reporting that Mr. Holder’s top political appointees intervened to force the abandonment of serious sanctions against the Black Panther members who threatened voters at a Philadelphia polling place on Election Day 2008. The Justice Department denied the claim, with spokesman Tracy Schmaler asserting to the contrary that only “career employees” engaged in what supposedly was a decision based entirely on “the facts and the law.” On May 14, Mr. Perez swore under oath before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that there was no “political leadership involved in the decision not to pursue this particular case any further than it was” and that it was only “a case of career people disagreeing with career people.”

As was seen when a host of outsiders accused the George W. Bush administration’s Justice Department of firing U.S. attorneys in order to interfere with ongoing investigations, it is improper for cases to be dismissed for purely political reasons. The Obama administration should be held to the same standard.

Rather than cooperate with requests for more information, the Justice Department claimed that all its documents related to the Black Panther case were “privileged.” A court ordered it to provide Judicial Watch a list of withheld documents with an explanation for each “privilege” asserted. Even the attenuated list sheds new light on the situation. By our count, Deputy Associate Attorney General Sam Hirsch, not only a political appointee but previously a top, cutthroat election attorney for the national Democratic Party, sent or received 58 e-mails about the case. The “description of withheld information” provided by the Justice Department indicates that Mr. Hirsch weighed in on the decision to drop the cases.

At least a dozen of Mr. Hirsch’s e-mails went back and forth up the chain of command to Associate Attorney General Thomas J. Perrelli, not down to people that the department now calls “career employees” (who themselves at the time were filling political positions). The list also shows that Deputy Attorney General David W. Ogden was involved by contributing “current thoughts” on the matter. The office of Attorney General Holder was kept in the loop as well. These are all political appointees.

Much more can and will be said about the gold mine of information unearthed by Judicial Watch, which continues to press for the release of more documents. For now, this much is clear: The department’s claim that political appointees were not involved in the case appears to be false. If so, Mr. Perez should be held to account for his sworn statements to the contrary.

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