The Justice Department supervisor who recommended pursuing a voter intimidation case against members of the New Black Panther Party testified Friday that the department’s Civil Rights Division has engaged in reverse racism, refusing to bring charges in voting cases unless the victim is a minority.
Christopher Coates, chief of the department’s Voting Rights section when the New Back Panther case was brought in 2009, defied his supervisors by testifying pursuant to a subpoena before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which has been investigating the case and appears poised to release a report critical of the Justice Department’s handling of it.
Mr. Coates, now on an 18-month detail to the U.S. Attorney’s office in South Carolina, said he felt compelled to testify because of what he deemed inaccurate statements made to the commission and elsewhere by department officials defending the handling of the case.
Department officials have consistently said they were following the law and evidence when they dismissed the case after they had won it by default judgment.
Mr. Coates posited a different explanation on Friday.
“Based upon my own personal knowledge of the events surrounding the division’s actions in the Panther case and the atmosphere that existed and continues to exist in the division and in the voting section against fair enforcement of certain federal voting laws, I do not believe these representations to this commission accurately reflect what occurred in the Panther case and do not reflect the hostile atmosphere that existed within the division for a long time against race-neutral enforcement of the Voting Rights Act,” he said.
Mr. Coates said this hostility became clear to him while pursuing a 2005 Mississippi case in which white voters were the victims of intimidation. He said some department employees refused to work on the case, which, according to Mr. Coates, also drew criticism from civil rights groups.
He said the election of President Obama allowed those most opposed to “race-neutral enforcement” to move into leadership positions against the Civil Rights Division. One of those officials, then-acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King, ordered the dismissal of the New Black Panther case.
A civil complaint in the case said two New Black Panther Party members in black berets, black combat boots, black shirts and black jackets with military insignias intimidated voters with racial slurs and a nightstick. A third-party member was accused of directing their behavior. The incident was captured on videotape and gained national attention after it was shown on YouTube.
Mr. Coates, citing the deliberative process privilege previously invoked by the Justice Department, would not say why Ms. King told him the case was being dropped. He also said he did not know whether a more senior official had ordered her to do so.
The Washington Times has reported, however, that the decision came after an April 2009 meeting with Associate Attorney General Thomas J. Perrelli, the department’s No. 3 political appointee, according to interviews with lawyers familiar with the case.
The Justice Department balked at Mr. Coates’ testimony and the commission’s investigation.
“As even one Republican member of the commission has acknowledged, this so-called investigation is thin on facts and evidence and thick on rhetoric,” Justice spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said, referring to commission member Abigail Thernstrom, who has been dismissive of the New Black Panther inquiry.
Ms. Schmaler also drew attention to the context in which the allegations are being made. She said 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.
“We have reinvigorated the Civil Rights Division and ensured that it is actively enforcing the American people’s civil rights, and it is clear that not everyone supports that,” she said. “We are committed to enforcing our nation’s civil rights laws, and we are going to continue to do so without respect to politics.”
One commissioner, Democrat Michael Yaki, sought to call into question Mr. Coates’ impartiality.
Mr. Coates has a long history in voting rights matters. He worked for the ACLU in the 1970s and 1980s in Georgia, generally bringing cases on behalf of black voters.
Mr. Coates also has received prestigious awards from the department since he began work there in 1996.
He said the only two voting right’s cases he ever brought at the Justice Department with white victims were the Mississippi case and the Black Panther case.
But Mr. Yaki pointed to an e-mail from Bradley Schlozman, former Justice Department official at the center of the politicized hiring scandal in the Civil Rights Division.
“Don’t be dissuaded by his ACLU work on voting matters from years ago. This is a very different man,” Mr. Schlozman wrote about Mr. Coates. “He is a true member of the team.
Mr. Coates said the e-mail was written at a time when he was seeking to become an immigration judge, and, while he called Mr. Schlozman a friend, he said the e-mail was inaccurate. He said he is not any more conservative now than he had been previously and denied being a “member of the team,” noting he had disagreements with Mr. Schlozman about how to handle cases.
But Mr. Coates did take exception to career department officials who have pilloried Mr. Schlozman for seeking to hire conservatives, noting the division was overwhelmingly liberal when Mr. Schlozman arrived to head the division.
“That’s like Snookie from the ‘Jersey Shore’ criticizing Lady Gaga for dressing too extravagantly,” he said to laughter and praises about his knowledge of popular culture.
On a serious note, Rep. Frank Wolf, Virginia Democrat, sent Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. a letter Thursday stressing the importance of Mr. Coates not receiving any retribution as a result of his testimony.
Since January, Mr. Coates has been working as an assistant U.S. Attorney in South Carolina. He testified Friday that he volunteered for the post when it became Justice officials were stripping him of his authority and he could not effectively do his job as chief of the voting rights section.
He said he chose South Carolina because his daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren live there.
• Ben Conery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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