LOS ANGELES, JULY 9 -- Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the NAACP, today accused federal prosecutors of harassment and selective prosecution of D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and many other black officials while ignoring more serious crimes by wealthy, well-connected whites.
Hooks said in an interview that "overzealous" prosecutors had spent millions of dollars pursuing black politicians such as Barry instead of "those lying, conniving, thieving savings and loan officials who robbed this country blind."
It was the strongest public statement on the issue to date by the leader of the nation's largest and oldest civil rights organization, and his views were echoed at the NAACP's 81st national convention here.
The 3,000 delegates loudly applauded Hooks Sunday night when, in a speech, he accused prosecutors and anti-corruption task forces of bias but did not name any black officials he contends are victims. Delegates interviewed today were unanimous in agreeing that Barry and other black officials have been unfairly treated.
"Two wrongs don't make a right," said Carol Butler, a commercial specialist from Houston. Los Angeles sociologist Patricia Benefield said "it would seem that there is a hidden agenda . . . to erode the power of black voices and official capabilities, and that should stop."
"I don't usually deal with specific cases, but this thing has worried me," Hooks said today, referring to the Barry case. "There are 4 million drug users, and if millions are using, what makes you go after one man to the exclusion of everybody else?"
Prosecutors should reorder their priorities, he said. In Barry's case, "you look at all the time they spent investigating him, and yet all they could charge him with was drug use."
He cited several other black officials he felt had been unfairly targeted, including Bradley, who addressed the convention Sunday, House Majority Whip William H. Gray III (D-Pa.), Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson and former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young.
David Dansby, an attorney from Greensboro, N.C., attending the convention, said he had seen similar action against a black city council member in his state. "We have many white politicians who do a lot of things that might not be right and we don't see prosecutors going after them in the same degree," he said.
In Washington, Dan Eramian, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said race has nothing to do with the department's actions. "The Department of Justice conducts its investigations based on evidence, not on people," he said. "We follow the evidence wherever it leads, irregardless of who the person is."
Attorney General Dick Thornburgh strongly denied that there was any "targeting" of black officials after Hooks made a similar accusation of "selective enforcement" shortly after Barry's arrest in January.
In his speech Sunday night, Hooks referred to the Barry case in saying "something is wrong with our system of justice when more than $40 million is spent and over 70 FBI agents assigned to trail and monitor one black elected official; to set up a sting operation to bring him down; and then to have America's chief law enforcement officers say afterwards that due to limited resources, no criminal investigations will be launched against 1,600 greedy savings and loan bank officials who have stolen over $500 billion."
Federal prosecutors have said that the $40 million-plus figure for the Barry case is "wildly exaggerated," pointing out that the annual budget for the U.S. attorney's office in Washington is $26 million.
Hooks said today that he would advise any young blacks interested in politics "that like Caesar's wife, they have to be above suspicion," or risk prosecution.
"At no time since Reconstruction," Hooks said Sunday night, "has there been a comparable period of incessant harassment of black elected officials."
He called the targeting of black officeholders "commonplace under Democratic and Republican administrations alike." He said "tremendous amounts of money and resources are expended to hunt every allegation, innuendo, rumor or hint of possible wrongdoing. Grand juries are impaneled by the U.S. attorney's office and the targeted official is brought before the grand jury along with any person, real or imagined, that can bolster the government's allegations."
Grand jury testimony leaked to the press then tarnishes the official's reputation "without the benefit of being able to defend himself in a court of law," Hooks said.
"Overzealous, hostile -- if not racist -- district attorneys and U.S. attorneys will bring a black official to trial on the flimsiest evidence," he said. "In documented cases, these men and women are forced to spend vast sums of money, are distracted from their political duties, and forced in some cases to leave office while they defend themselves."
"Let's make it plain," he said. "We in the NAACP object to the selective prosecution of black officials. And at the same time we are just as opposed to -- and find repugnant -- misconduct by any public officials."
In his speech, Hooks also called for strong action in support of the civil rights bill sponsored by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Augustus F. Hawkins (D-Calif.) that seeks to reverse recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings weakening affirmative action and anti-discrimination laws. He suggested a "moratorium on excuses," particularly from black leaders and thinkers who "blame the system, white folk, external forces for the conditions of urban America" and more effort by blacks themselves to make changes.
Hooks acknowledged today that the rapid growth in the number of elected black officials, which he put now at 7,000, might explain in some small measure the increase in investigations of blacks. "But the numbers won't hold up," he said, adding that he still sensed a preference for black targets.
"I resent anybody setting standards for others that they do not set for themselves," he said.