A Republican lawmaker has sternly warned Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. not to take any action against a high-ranking Justice Department official who told the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that the government’s dismissal of a civil complaint against the New Black Panther Party was a “travesty of justice.”
In a letter, Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia, a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, said the testimony Friday of former voting rights section Chief Christopher Coates was protected by federal law and admonished Mr. Holder against any possible punishment.
“I trust that Mr. Coates will face no repercussion for his decision and expect you to inform political and career supervisors to respect his decision,” Mr. Wolf said, noting that the federal Whistleblower Protection Statute ensured his right to testify in the New Black Panther Party case.
“Federal officials who deny or interfere with employees’ rights to furnish information to Congress are not entitled to have their salaries paid by the taxpayers,” he said. “I assure you that I take this statute very seriously and will do everything in my power to enforce it should any negative actions be taken against Mr. Coates.”
Mr. Coates had been subpoenaed by the commission but was ordered by the Justice Department not to testify in the case. He told the commission he wanted to attend the meeting “to present testimony to comply with the outstanding subpoena served on me as part of your statutory investigation.”
A career Justice Department prosecutor, Mr. Coates was the voting rights section chief and recommended pursuing a voter intimidation case against members of the New Black Panther Party after they disrupted a Philadelphia polling place in the 2008 presidential election — a decision that later was overturned after a federal judge ordered a default judgment in the case. He was later transferred to the U.S. attorney’s office in South Carolina.
On Friday, Mr. Coates told the Civil Rights Commission that the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division has engaged in reverse racism, refusing to bring charges in voting cases unless the victim is a minority. He said he felt compelled to testify because of what he deemed inaccurate statements made to the commission and elsewhere by department officials defending the handling of the case.
Mr. Coates said that based on his “own personal knowledge” of the decisions made in the New Black Panther case, he did not believe the representations made by Justice to the commission accurately reflected what had occurred and did not “reflect the hostile atmosphere that existed within the division for a long time against race-neutral enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.”
He said this hostility became clear to him while pursuing a 2005 Mississippi case in which white voters were the victims of intimidation. He said some department employees refused to work on the case, which, according to Mr. Coates, also drew criticism from civil rights groups.
Mr. Coates told the commission that the election of President Obama allowed those most opposed to “race-neutral enforcement” to move into leadership positions against the Civil Rights Division. One of those officials, then-acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King, ordered the dismissal of the New Black Panther case.
A civil complaint in the case 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.com.
The Justice Department has balked at Mr. Coates‘ testimony and the commission’s ongoing investigation of the matter. It has said that even one Republican member of the commission, Abigail Thernstrom, has opposed the inquiry, adding that the panel’s inquiry was “thin on facts and evidence and thick on rhetoric.”
Justice spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said the “politicization that occurred in the Civil Rights Division in the previous administration has been well documented by the inspector general, and it was a disgrace to the great history of the division.” She said the new administration had “reinvigorated the Civil Rights Division and ensured that it is actively enforcing the American people’s civil rights.
“We are committed to enforcing our nation’s civil rights laws, and we are going to continue to do so without respect to politics,” she said.
Since January, Mr. Coates has been working as an assistant U.S. attorney in South Carolina. He said he volunteered for the post when it became clear that Justice officials were stripping him of his authority and he could not effectively do his job as chief of the voting rights section.