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Probe in New Black Panther case

By Jerry Markon
Tuesday, September 14, 2010; A4

The Justice Department's internal watchdog is investigating allegations that its civil rights division enforced voting laws in a racially discriminatory manner, officials said Monday.

The review by Inspector General Glenn A. Fine is an outgrowth of the 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 civil rights division improperly narrowed that case, part of their broader allegations that the Obama Justice Department has failed to protect the civil rights of white voters.

The department's Office of Professional Responsibility is looking into the matter, and two Republican congressmen, Frank R. Wolf (Va.) and Lamar Smith (Tex.) asked Fine to also investigate the department's handling of the case, according to letters the congressmen sent Fine over the summer.

Fine, in a letter Monday to the congressmen, wrote that his office will not investigate the New Black Panther case specifically but is initiating a broader review of how the Justice Department enforces voting rights laws.

The letter, released by both congressional offices, said the review will focus on what types of cases the civil rights division's voting section brings and whether it enforces the law "in a non-discriminatory manner."

Smith said Monday he is "pleased" that Fine "has decided to take up a review of possible discriminatory practices by attorneys in the Civil Rights Division. Recent allegations of politicization within the Justice Department raise serious concerns."

Wolf added that the investigation is "very positive."

Xochitl Hinojosa, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said the department "makes enforcement decisions based on the evidence and the merits. We are committed to the evenhanded enforcement of the many statutes in the jurisdiction of the Civil Rights Division's Voting Section." She referred questions about the investigation to Fine's office.

A spokeswoman for Fine confirmed that the review is in its very early stages but would not comment further.

The investigation presents another challenge for the Civil Rights Division, which was strained by employee departures and allegations of politicization during the Bush administration but has been stepping up enforcement. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is a former civil rights lawyer who has vowed to make the division the department's "crown jewel."

But conservatives contend that the Obama administration has itself become politicized, and they have focused their ire on the New Black Panther case. Filed weeks before the Obama administration took office, it focused on two of the party's members who stood in front of a polling place in Philadelphia on Election Day 2008, one carrying a nightstick and identifying himself as "security." The men were captured on video and accused of trying to discourage some people from voting.

Conservatives took issue with the Justice Department's decision last year to narrow the case, dropping the party and one of the men, and to focus only on the nightstick bearer. Department officials say they did not have sufficient evidence to pursue the case against the other defendants. Justice officials from the Bush administration called the decision political.

Former Justice Department lawyer J. Christian Adams recently told the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which held a series of hearings on the matter, that he believed the case had been narrowed because some in the civil rights division were interested in protecting only minorities.

That allegation was among those cited by Wolf and Smith in their letters to Fine, which triggered the inspector general's review.

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