Justice’s Panther pursuer to testify on case

Back to probe after dismissal

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The Justice Department section chief who recommended going forward on a civil complaint against members of the New Black Panther Party, and then was removed from his post and transferred to South Carolina, will testify on the case Friday before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Commission officials confirmed Wednesday that Christopher Coates, who signed off on the federal-court complaint saying three party members had disrupted a Philadelphia polling place in the 2008 elections, had agreed in a hand-delivered letter to testify when the panel reconvenes its hearing on the case.

In the letter, Mr. Coates said he wanted to attend the meeting “to present testimony to comply with the outstanding subpoena served on me as part of your statutory investigation.”

In December, the Justice Department had told the attorneys who filed the complaint not to cooperate in the commission’s investigation. Joseph H. Hunt, director of the Justice Department’s Federal Programs Branch, had ordered the lawyers’ silence, saying there were “well-established” and “lawful” department guidelines prohibiting them from cooperating with the commission.

Mr. Hunt said at the time that the Civil Rights Commission “possesses no authority to initiate criminal prosecution of anyone” and could only make referrals to the Justice Department recommending that a criminal case be opened. He said the commission did not have the authority to enforce subpoenas.

The commission had subpoenaed Mr. Coates and J. Christian Adams, the lead attorney in the New Black Panther Party case, in December, seeking their testimony and documents to explain why the complaint was dismissed just as a federal judge was about to punish the party members, who never responded to the charges.

Just days after the Hunt ruling, Mr. Coates was removed from his post as section chief of the Voting Rights Division and transferred to the U.S. attorney’s office in South Carolina.

Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler confirmed at the time that Mr. Coates would begin an 18-month detail with the U.S. attorney’s office in South Carolina, but said the transfer had nothing to do with the New Black Panther Party case. She said it resulted from conversations Mr. Coates initiated with Civil Rights Division officials, although she did not elaborate.

Mr. Coates has steadfastly declined to comment on the case and has referred inquiries to the department’s public affairs office.

The commission, in a 5-2 vote, issued subpoenas to determine how the complaint had been handled, including an explanation of why it was dismissed and why there has been a “dearth of cooperation” from the department in response to several months of letters seeking information.

Records show that Justice Department attorneys, led by Mr. Coates, decided as early as Dec. 22, 2008, to seek charges against the New Black Panther Party members.

The decision to dismiss the civil complaint came from then-acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King after an April 2009 meeting with Associate Attorney General Thomas J. Perrelli, the department’s No. 3 political appointee, according to interviews with lawyers familiar with the case.

The career attorneys were in the final stages of completing that work when they were told to seek the delay.

The complaint said two New Black Panther Party members in black berets, black combat boots, black shirts and black jackets with military insignias intimidated voters with racial slurs and a nightstick. A third party member was accused of directing their behavior. The incident was captured on videotape and gained national attention after it was shown on YouTube.

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