Two senior lawmakers on Wednesday said the Justice Department, after five months of “repeated questions,” again refused to say why it “wrongfully dismissed” a civil complaint against members of the New Black Panther Party who were accused of voter intimidation at a Philadelphia polling place during the November 2008 presidential elections.
Republican Reps. Lamar Smith of Texas, ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, and Frank R. Wolf of Virginia, a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, said the department again had “rebuffed congressional inquiries” on why the complaint - brought during the George W. Bush administration - was dismissed by President Obama’s political appointees.
The congressmen said the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), which began an internal review of the case in August, cited department policy regarding pending investigations in declining to answer any questions.
They noted, however, that the department’s own media guidelines say that when there is a significant public interest, information regarding pending investigations can be released.
“Certainly, the apparent abuse of authority by senior political appointees at the Justice Department constitutes a significant public interest,” they said in a joint statement. “We remain concerned that the Justice Department is prolonging OPR’s investigation as a pretense to ignore inquiries from Congress and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights into the sudden and unexplained dismissal of voter intimidation charges against the New Black Panther Party.
“Any written report by OPR will be prepared exclusively for the attorney general and deputy attorney general, with no guarantee it will ever be made public,” they said.
The Washington Times first reported the complaint’s dismissal in May, later noting that Associate Attorney General Thomas J. Perrelli - the department’s No. 3 political appointee - approved it even after the government won court judgments against the NBPP and its members.
Mr. Smith and Mr. Wolf have sought unsuccessfully to get Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to make available for a closed-door meeting the career lawyers who brought the complaint and have sent several letters to various Justice Department officials asking for an explanation of why the charges were dropped.
Mary Patrice Brown, acting OPR counsel, confirmed in August that her office had “initiated an inquiry into the matter,” although no information about the probe has been released since. It is not clear whether any of the career lawyers have been interviewed, whether they have made any statements or given any reports on the case to OPR officials.
“After five months of unanswered questions, the American people can tell a cover-up when they see one,” Mr. Smith and Mr. Wolf said. “If the Justice Department had any credible reason for dropping these charges, what do they have to hide by providing those answers to Congress?”
The two lawmakers said the continued refusal of the Obama administration “to answer these simple questions is proof that wrongful political considerations were behind the administration’s decision to drop charges against their political ally.”
“The Justice Department owes the American people the truth, not another round of empty excuses,” they said.
Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler has said that concerns by Mr. Smith and Mr. Wolf are being reviewed but noted that as a “general policy,” the department does not comment on ongoing OPR matters.
Ms. Schmaler also told The Times that facts in the case did not back up the charges and that career officials at Justice, not political appointees, decided to drop the charges.
“Following a thorough review, a career attorney in the Civil Rights Division determined that the facts and the law did not support pursuing the claims against three of the defendants,” she said. “As a result, the department dismissed those claims.”
The Justice Department’s Voting Section filed a civil complaint against the New Black Panther Party in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia in January, claiming two of its members - Minister King Samir Shabazz, head of the Philadelphia chapter, and Jerry Jackson, a Philadelphia party member - in black berets, black combat boots, black shirts and black jackets with military insignias intimidated voters with racial insults, slurs and a nightstick.
A third party member, Chairman Malik Zulu Shabazz, a lawyer and D.C. resident, was accused of directing and endorsing their behavior.
New Black Panther Party officials and members have not been available for comment