By Jerry Markon and Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 25, 2010; 3:44 AM
A veteran Justice Department lawyer accused his agency Friday of being unwilling to pursue racial discrimination cases on behalf of white voters, turning what had been a lower-level controversy into an escalating political headache for the Obama administration.
Christopher Coates's testimony before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights was the latest fallout from the department's handling of a 2008 voter-intimidation case involving the New Black Panther Party. Conservatives and some congressional Republicans accuse Justice officials of improperly narrowing the charges, allegations that they strongly dispute.
Filed weeks before the Obama administration took office, the case focused on two party members who stood in front of a polling place in Philadelphia on Election Day 2008, one carrying a nightstick. The men were captured on video and were accused of trying to discourage some people from voting.
Coates, former head of the voting section that brought the case, testified in defiance of his supervisor's instructions and has been granted whistleblower protection. Coates criticized what he called the "gutting" of the New Black Panthers case for "irrational reasons," saying the decision was part of "deep-seated" opposition among the department's leaders to filing voting-rights cases against minorities and cases that protect whites.
"I had people who told me point-blank that [they] didn't come to the voting rights section to sue African American people," said Coates, who transferred to the U.S. attorney's office in South Carolina in January. "When you are paid by the taxpayer, that is totally indefensible."
The rare spectacle of a Justice Department lawyer publicly rebuking the department's leaders came amid heightened legal and political fallout from the case. The commission is to issue a report on the matter next month, and an internal probe by the department's Office of Professional Responsibility is pending.
Glenn A. Fine, the Justice Department's inspector general, recently began his own investigation into whether the agency's Civil Rights Division enforces laws in a racially discriminatory manner. It is considered highly probable that House Republicans will hold hearings if they take control of the chamber after midterm elections in November.
"We're not going to let this go," said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.). "There is something rotten going on at the Justice Department."
Justice officials vigorously contested Coates's allegations and accused the commission, which has been burrowing into the New Black Panther case for months, of a biased probe based in part on hearsay and unsubstantiated media reports. A bloc of conservative members controls the commission, formed 53 years ago to investigate denials of civil rights.
"This so-called investigation is thin on facts and evidence and thick on rhetoric," said Tracy Schmaler, a Justice Department spokeswoman. "The department makes enforcement decisions based on the merits, not the race, gender or ethnicity of any party involved. We are committed to comprehensive and vigorous enforcement of the federal laws that prohibit voter intimidation."
Justice officials tried to turn around the allegations, pointing to internal watchdog reports accusing the George W. Bush administration of politicizing hiring in the civil rights division. The watchdogs concluded, for example, that the division's former head refused to hire lawyers who he labeled "commies."
"The politicization that occurred in the Civil Rights Division in the previous administration has been well documented by the inspector general, and it was a disgrace to the great history of the division," Schmaler said. "We have changed that. We have reinvigorated the Civil Rights Division."
Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights, called the Civil Rights Commission's handling of the case "baseless sensationalism." He argued that no voters had come forward to say they were intimidated.
The controversy began last year when the government narrowed the voter-intimidation lawsuit that had been filed against members of the New Black Panthers, dropping the party and one defendant from the case and focusing only on the bearer of the stick. Officials have said they lacked legal precedent and sufficient evidence to pursue the case more fully.
Justice officials who served in the Bush administration called the decision political, and the dispute became a major issue in conservative circles. It has been slow to gain traction among the general public but began heating up in July. Former Justice lawyer J. Christian Adams told the civil rights commission that the case was narrowed because some of his colleagues were interested in protecting only minorities.
Defenders of the administration accused Adams, who publicized the issue with regular blog items and columns, of being a conservative activist out to score political points. Coates was referred to in a Justice Department report on politicization of hiring during the Bush administration as being "a true member of the team" accused of being behind such practices.
But Coates has a pedigree different from that of many conservatives. He was hired at Justice during the Clinton administration in 1996 and had worked for the American Civil Liberties Union. Sheldon Bradshaw, a high-level Civil Rights Division official in the Bush administration, said Coates "is nonpartisan in how he enforces voting rights laws."
In his testimony, Coates said the current Justice Department is "at war" with "race-neutral" enforcement of civil rights laws. He also said there is evidence for broader prosecution of the New Black Panther case.
"We had eyewitness testimony. We had videotape. One of them had a weapon. They were hurling racial slurs," Coates said. "I've never been able to understand how anyone could accuse us of not having a basis of law in this case."