Report: Justice Dept. tried hiding officials' role in Panther lawsuit dismissal

By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 29, 2010

The Justice Department has tried to hide the extensive involvement of high-level political officials in the dismissal of a controversial voter-intimidation lawsuit against members of the New Black Panther Party, a federal commission concluded in a draft report.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said the department's reversal in the case indicates that its Civil Rights Division is failing to protect white voters and is "at war with its core mission of guaranteeing equal protection [under] the laws for all Americans.''

The Justice Department denied the allegations in the report, based on the commission's year-long investigation into the Obama administration's handling of the 2008 incident. The Bush administration had filed the lawsuit against members of the New Black Panther Party, but the Obama Justice Department dismissed most of the case.

"The department makes enforcement decisions based on the merits, not the race, gender or ethnicity of any party involved,'' said spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler. "We are committed to comprehensive and vigorous enforcement of the federal laws that prohibit voter intimidation.''

The 131-page report is the latest fallout from the case's dismissal, which triggered outrage from conservatives and congressional Republicans, two internal Justice Department inquiries and the commission investigation.

The commission, controlled by a bloc of conservative and libertarian members, is scheduled to vote on the report Friday. A draft copy was posted Thursday on the Web site TPMMuckraker.

Two New Black Panther Party members were videotaped standing outside a Philadelphia polling place on Election Day 2008, one man holding a nightstick. No voters complained, but the Bush administration sued them, the national party and chairman.

The Obama Justice Department dismissed charges against three defendants and obtained a narrowed writ against a fourth, although the Panthers had not contested the charges.

The commission's draft report said the "repeated attempts to obscure" the involvement of political appointees in the dismissal "raise questions about what the Department is trying to hide. ''

The report accuses the department of stonewalling the investigation. Schmaler disputed that, saying it provided more than 4,000 pages of documents.

The commission's findings are based mostly on testimony of two Justice Department attorneys involved in the case and media reports, including a Washington Post article that reported the case tapped into divisions within the department over the proper role for the Civil Rights Division.

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