The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has given U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder an April 12 deadline to state whether the Justice Department will stop stonewalling an investigation of alleged voter intimidation involving three members of the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense in Philadelphia.
A letter from Commission Chairman Gerald A. Reynolds to Holder declares that the organization's efforts to obtain information from the Justice Department are at an "impasse."
The commission wants to know why the department dismissed a complaint filed against several New Black Panther defendants who were videotaped confronting a cameraman and brandishing a nightstick outside a polling place.
Editor's Note: See video of the New Black Panthers voting rights controversy below
The men blocked access to the polls, harassed voters and poll workers, and hurled racial epithets, according to the commission,. Police were called to the scene, and the two men were ordered to leave.
Videos of the incident have been posted on YouTube.
Bartle Bull, an author and civil rights veteran who ran RFK's 1968 presidential campaign, was observing the Fairmont Street polling station in Philadelphia when the incident occurred. Bull filed an affidavit that stated he overheard one of the men tell a white poll observer, "You are about to be ruled by the black man, cracker."
Bull, a former publisher of the Village Voice, was awarded the 2003 civil rights medal by the late liberal lion Sen. Ted Kennedy for his voting-rights work in Mississippi. He was monitoring polling activities on Election Day 2008 in his role as chairman of New York's Democrats for McCain organization.
Bull's affidavit described the incident as "the most blatant form of voter intimidation I have encountered in my life in political campaigns in many states, even going back to the work I did in Mississippi in the 1960s."
Bull tells Newsmax he believes the incident was part of a larger campaign to intimidate poll watchers, who were trying to expose voters who had been fraudulently registered by the now-defunct ACORN organization.
"Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy did not die to have uniformed thugs with weapons blocking the doors to polling places," Bull tells Newsmax.
He adds that he was "appalled but not surprised" when the Holder Justice Department announced it was dropping the case. "Eric Holder's job is to defend the supporters of the administration," he says.
Reynolds' letter states that the department "appears to have failed to prosecute this case in a robust manner," and by so doing "it appears to have provided hate groups of every ilk a precedent that will assist them in avoiding liability for voter intimidation."
The Commission on Civil Rights was established by the Civil Rights Act of 1957. The Obama administration would be hard-pressed to dismiss its findings: Four of its eight board members are appointed by the president.
The commission began investigating the case after the Justice Department dismissed a voter intimidation lawsuit in May 2009 over the objections of career civil service attorneys who recommended pursuing it.
The commission isn't the only group getting stiff-armed while trying to find out why the department dropped the case.
"We've been stalled as well," Tom Fitton, president of the nonprofit Judicial Watch organization, tells Newsmax.
Fitton says Judicial Watch filed Freedom of Information Act inquiries on the case several months ago and has received no response.
Although Fitton plans to let the administration process continue to play out, he tells Newsmax "It's looking more and more like we've going to have to sue in the end."
When the alleged intimidation came to the attention of the Justice Department's Voting Rights Section in January 2009, it filed a civil complaint charging that the New Black Panther members had acted inappropriately and intimidated voters.
Because the defendants never answered the complaint, Reynolds wrote, "The Department could have moved for a default judgment, which career lawyers responsible for the case in both the Voting and Appellate Sections, reportedly recommended."
Instead, the department overruled its own staff's recommendation and dismissed all charges brought against the defendants, with the exception of one charge against the man who held the nightstick.
Against that defendant, according to the commission, the department "then sought an injunction against this defendant that orders him to refrain from displaying a weapon within 100 feet of polling places, in Philadelphia only, until November 2012."
The Washington Times reported Monday that, according to unnamed sources in the department, the Voting Rights Section had been on the verge of seeking judgments against the men when Loretta King, who was acting assistant attorney general, issued a delay order.
That delay reportedly came after a meeting with Associate Attorney General Thomas J. Perrelli. The Times reports that Perrelli. the department's No. 3 political appointee, approved dismissing the charges.
The Civil Rights Commission is seeking to obtain testimony on the New Black Panthers decision from Justice Department personnel. It also seeks documents reflecting any communications among Loretta King, Holder, and Perrelli.
Reynolds wrote that the Department has "repeatedly refused" to answer basic requests for information. He points out that a 1975 statute passed by Congress requires all federal agencies to "cooperate fully with the Commission to the end that it may effectively carry out its functions and duties."
The Justice Department has been sending Reynolds written assurances that it "seeks to be as responsible as possible," while only producing documents of primarily historical interest.
Its basis for not producing the request information "remains unclear," Reynolds says.
Reynolds asks in his letter. "Has the President invoked executive privilege over the materials that the Commission is seeking? If that is the case, the President or the Attorney General must so state."
Fitton tells Newsmax the whole matter smacks of a coverup.
"You never know until you get the underlying documents, but given the behavior it's fair to question whether it is a coverup," he tells Newsmax.
"There's really no good legal reason, or policy reason, for withholding information about this decision. So their behavior can, I think, fairly be described as a coverup. If there's nothing to hide, release the information.
Fitton, who calls the video of weapons being carried outside a polling place "shocking," says the administration may just be hoping that the controversy will go away.
"I think it's particularly ironic that the nation's first black attorney general, the first black president, are in a fight with the civil rights commission on a voting rights case," he says.
The civil rights commission is an independent, bipartisan unit of the federal government, charged with investigating and reporting on civil rights issues, especially those affect a citizen's right to vote. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., also has been pushing the Justice Department to justify dropping the charges.
Both the original Black Panthers, and the Huey P. Newton Foundation, have condemned the New Black Panthers group, saying on its Web site that it "serves to incite hatred rather than resolve it."
The Anti-Defamation League says the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense is responsible for "inflammatory bigotry," calling it "the largest organized anti-Semitic black militant group in America."
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