- The Washington Times - Monday, April 26, 2010

In its first public comments about a controversial voter-intimidation case, the New Black Panther Party said it did not break any laws and praised a decision by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s Justice Department to dismiss a civil complaint in the matter.

A written statement by the party, issued Friday during a hearing of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, conceded that one member — Minister King Samir Shabazz — should not have brought a nightstick to a Philadelphia polling place on Election Day in November 2008, but described it as “an honest error.”

“What these Republican witch hunters repeatedly fail to mention is that the individual member involved in the nightstick incident was in fact legally penalized, and prohibited by law by Eric Holders Justice Department from polling places through 2012,” said the statement from Minister Hashim Nzinga, chief of staff to party leader Malik Zulu Shabazz.

“What these complainers against Attorney General Eric Holder also consistently fail to mention is that this member, who we believe made an honest error but still deviated from organizational policy on that day, was actually suspended from the New Black Panther Party until January 2010 as a result of this mishap,” it said. “The New Black Panther Party made it clear then and now we dont support voter intimidation.”

The controversy stems from a civil complaint brought by the Justice Department’s voting rights section accusing Mr. Samir Shabazz, head of the Philadelphia chapter, and Jerry Jackson, a Philadelphia party member, of intimidating voters.

The two men were videotaped outside a polling place wearing the quasimilitary uniforms of the party, which included combat boots and black berets. While Mr. Samir Shabazz brandished a nightstick, Mr. Jackson, a certified Democratic poll watcher, was unarmed.

Mr. Zulu Shabazz, a lawyer and D.C. resident, also was named in the complaint, being accused of directing and endorsing their behavior. The party itself also was included as a defendant.

None of the defendants answered the charges and the Justice Department won the case by default, but it ultimately chose to drop the cases against Mr. Jackson, Mr. Zulu Shabazz and the party as a whole. The department did obtain an injunction against Mr. Samir Shabazz prohibiting him from brandishing a weapon outside a polling place until 2012.

The controversy comes because the case was brought during the Bush administration, but dropped after President Obama took office. The civil rights commission is investigating whether political interference led to the downsizing of the case, but commissioners said it will be difficult to determine because of the scant cooperation they has received from the Justice Department.

“I remain skeptical that we are likely to get the evidence necessary to answer that question,” said Abigail Thernstrom, a Republican appointee to the committee.

The Justice Department steadfastly has maintained that it followed the law and evidence in the case and was not influenced by partisan politics.

But Gregory Katsas, a top Justice Department official during the Bush administration, testified Friday that he wasn’t sure about that.

Mr. Katsas, who at one point supervised the department’s civil rights division, also said the associate attorney general, the department’s No. 3 political appointee, would have almost certainly played a huge role in the decision to abandon much of the case.

He said such a move was extremely unusual.

“The complaint stated a strong case of voter intimidation against all the defendants,” said Mr. Katsas. “The decision to abandon most of the claims in the case and narrow the requested injunction was not justified.”

Mr. Katsas did say, however, that it is unlikely the Justice Department would have consulted the White House before dropping most of the charges in the case.

The New Black Panther Party also denied having any political ties with Mr. Obama, saying in its statement that its “only connection to President Obama is the common color of our skin.” The party blamed the controversy on “Tea Party Republicans,” whom it said were grasping at straws to undermine Mr. Obama and Mr. Holder.

“Any allegation that this case was decided on any grounds other than the facts and merits is absurd. … The case was a weak case and you are making way more out of it than the matter deserves,” the party said in the statement. “The U.S. Justice Department, under Attorney General Eric Holder, did its job and stopped the politicization of the U.S. Justice Department Civil Rights Division.”

The civil rights commission is scheduled to resume hearings next month with testimony from Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez, who heads the civil rights division.

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