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Civil rights panel postpones vote on New Black Panthers report after member walks out

By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 29, 2010; 4:32 PM

A federal commission had to postpone a vote on a report that criticizes the Justice Department's handling of a voter-intimidation lawsuit Friday after a Democratic panelist walked out of the meeting in protest.

The draft of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report says that Justice tried to hide the extensive involvement of high-level political officials in the dismissal of the suit against members of the New Black Panther Party. The move, the report says, indicates that Justice's 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 has strongly denied the allegations in the report, which follows the commission's year-long investigation into the Obama administration's handling of the 2008 incident. The Bush administration had filed the lawsuit against the New Black Panther Party members, but the Justice Department under the Obama administration dismissed most of the case.

The commission, which is controlled by a bloc of conservative and liberterian members, was scheduled to vote on the report Friday morning. But it could not reach a quorum because commissioner Michael Yaki, a Democratic appointee and a former senior adviser to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, refused to participate. The commission needs five members present to meet quorum.

"This has been a procedural and partisan farce from the beginning,'' Yaki said in an impromptu news conference. "It's not my responsibility to make a quorum for this kangaroo court ... they want to score political points against the Obama Justice Department.''

Members of the commission's majority, who drafted the report, denied they were motivated by politics and accused Justice Department officials of blocking their investigation, failing to turn over key documents and instructing witnessnes not to testify.

"The degree of stonewalling that the Justice Department has engaged in is unprecedented in the 53-year history of the commission,'' said commissioner Todd F. Gaziano, a senior fellow in legal studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation. He said the commission would vote on the 131-page report at its meeting next week.

The accusations illustrate the partisan nature of the debate over the New Black Panther Party case, which triggered outrage from conservatives and congressional Republicans, two internal Justice Department inquiries and the civil rights commission investigation. The commission, which studies federal enforcement of civil rights laws, has eight members -- four presidential appointees and four appointed by Congress.

Justice officials have said the case's dismissal was based on a legal analysis and insufficient evidence. They have denied stonewalling the commission's investigation, saying they provided more than 4,000 pages of documents.

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

In the Philadelphia incident, two New Black Panther Party members were videotaped standing outside a polling place on Election Day in 2008 wearing paramilitary uniforms. One carried a nightstick. Although no voters had complained, the Bush administration sued the the men, the national party and its chairman.

After President Obama took office, the Justice Department dismissed the charges against three defendants and obtained a narrowed injunction against the fourth, even though the defendants had not contested the case.

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

The commission's findings are based mostly on the testimony of two Justice Department attorneys involved in the case, as well as media reports, including a recent article in The Washington Post. That article said the case tapped into deep divisions within the Justice Department over whether the agency should focus on protection of historically oppressed minorities or enforcement of laws without regard to race.

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