Report clears Justice Department in Black Panther case

Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately reported the name of the Office of Professional Responsibility. The article also incorrectly identified Michael Yaki as a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He is a former member whose reappointment is awaiting congressional approval. This version has been corrected.

The Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) has concluded an investigation finding that politics played no role in the handling of the New Black Panther Party case, which sparked a racially charged political fight.

After reviewing thousands of pages of internal e-mails and notes and conducting 44 interviews with department staff members, the OPR reported that “department attorneys did not commit professional misconduct or exercise poor judgment” and that the voter-intimidation case against the Panthers was dismissed on “a good faith assessment of the law” and “not influenced by the race of the defendants.”

The OPR’s findings were released in a letter Tuesday to Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) that was signed by department attorney Robin Ashton.

The probe was an outgrowth of a political controversy over a 2008 voter-intimidation case against members of the New Black Panther Party. Some conservative lawyers, politicians and commentators have said that the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division improperly narrowed that case — part of broader allegations among conservatives that the Obama Justice Department has failed to protect the civil rights of white voters. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and other Justice officials have strongly denied the charge.

In a statement, Smith, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee and is expected to hold hearings on whether the department is politicized, said the review — which was limited to the actions of attorneys in the case — “did not address the Civil Rights Division’s misguided policy of using racial considerations when determining whether to enforce voting rights laws. The Division should protect the voting rights of all Americans, regardless of race, gender, religion or political affiliation.”

Michael Yaki, a former liberal member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights whose reappointment is awaiting congressional approval, disagreed. The department was “vindicated” by the report, he said. “There was no evidence of racial bias in the decision making of the Justice Department under Attorney General Holder.”

An investigation by Justice’s inspector general is ongoing.

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Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has covered local businesses, traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala to tell stories of immigrants’ connections to their home countries and reported from the newsroom’s Prince George’s County bureau. More recently, she has written about civil rights, race and politics.
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