The head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division on Wednesday strongly disputed accusations by a department colleague that the Obama administration avoids prosecuting minorities in civil rights cases, saying it all amounts to a "'he said, she said' thing" and that he "tends to judge people by their actions," not their words.
It's the first time Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez has weighed in since Justice Department lawyer Christopher Coates accused Perez's office of being "hostile" toward "race-neutral enforcement" of voting rights laws.
For more than a year, Republicans have been questioning why the Obama administration reversed course on a federal lawsuit against two members of the New Black Panther Party, who some say intimidated Pennsylvania voters on Election Day 2008. The issue came to a head in late September when Coates, who was heavily involved in the initial filing of the case, defied the Justice Department and testified before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, whose conservative majority has led a lengthy and often contentious investigation into the matter.
"I strongly disagree with Mr. Coates," Perez told reporters gathered in a Civil Rights Division conference room in Washington. "You look at our enforcement actions in the Obama administration in the voting context, and you see cases where we've had African-American defendants and white victims, and you see cases that involve white defendants and African-American victims."
While Coates only vaguely addressed the New Black Panther Party case and refused to discuss any specific internal discussions during his testimony, he cited what he claimed are three examples of "deep-seated opposition to the equal enforcement of the Voting Rights Act against racial minorities and for the protection of white voters who had been discriminated against."
Most notably, he said that during lunch meetings in late 2009 a top Justice Department official told Civil Rights Division attorneys "the Obama administration was only interested in bringing traditional types of ... cases that would provide equality for racial and language minority voters."
Asked about those meetings and allegations, Perez said he and "everyone on our leadership team" have "delivered" a "very consistent message that ... we enforce all the laws, and we do so fairly, independently and even-handedly."
"Our actions give real insight into what was said [in meetings]," Perez said, adding that the Justice Department has "enforced the New Black Panther case" by obtaining an injunction against one of the defendants and has continued to prosecute the case of Ike Brown, a Democratic official in Mississippi who allegedly devised a scheme to disenfranchise white voters.
"Our actions I think are the best indicator of what our policies are," he said, trying to emphasize the point.
Coates himself noted that, prior to George W. Bush's tenure, no administration -- Republican or Democrat -- had ever filed a voting rights case involving white victims and minority defendants, saying that a focus on minority voters had long been "pattern and practice."
But, he testified, he "hoped that that pattern had been amended and changed" when the Bush Justice Department filed suit against Brown in 2006. Coates said opposition to the move, namely from career attorneys in the Civil Rights Division, was "widespread," with one Justice Department official allegedly telling Coates, "Can you believe we are going to Mississippi to protect white voters?"
In a sworn declaration filed last week with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the Justice Department official, former Civil Rights Division attorney Robert Kengle, called Coates' testimony "materially incomplete and misleading." In fact, Kengle said, he expressed "outrage" to Coates and others that they were investigating the Mississippi case when "concerns of discrimination against minority voters" were being rejected "for what I believe were spurious reasons."
"I believe that a double standard was being applied under which complaints by minority voters were subjected to excessive and unprecedentedly demanding standards, then dismissed as not being credible, while on the other hand [we were] being ordered to pursue the [Ike Brown] complaints at face value ... as a top priority," Kengle wrote in his Oct. 18 declaration.
Asked on Wednesday why Coates would accuse the Obama administration of failing to encourage equal enforcement of civil rights laws when Perez insisted such claims were false, the Civil Rights Division chief simply said, "You'll have to ask Mr. Coates."
By Coates' own admission, he and some of his colleagues in the Civil Rights Division long had "ideological legal-type" disagreements. During 2009, he had "considerable conflict" with several top officials, and "under the circumstances" he asked to be transferred to the U.S. Attorney's Office in South Carolina, where he is now temporarily working as an Assistant U.S. Attorney.
The Justice Department tried to block Coates' testimony to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, citing "longstanding Department of Justice policy" to avoid disclosing "confidential internal deliberations." Some conservative members of U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said the Justice Department was "stonewalling," and they wanted Coates to "refute" or "confirm" previous testimony from former Justice Department official J. Christian Adams, the first to publicly allege in July an "open hostility toward equal enforcement" of voting rights laws.
Perez himself testified before the commission two months earlier, insisting -- as he has repeatedly -- that the Justice Department is enforcing laws equally. On the New Black Panther Party case specifically, he said Justice Department officials concluded there was "insufficient evidence" to support stronger action against any of the defendants.
In fact, in a December 2008 email, Adams said, "Under the statute, a black poll watcher for you being abused or insulted is critical, and thus far, I don't have one."
Still, the Justice Department won a default judgment against two New Black Panther Party defendants in April 2009. Dressed in military-style uniforms, they had been videotaped outside a Philadelphia polling station on Election Day 2008. One was carrying a nightstick. In May 2009, though, the Justice Department filed a motion to dismiss charges against one of the men, saying a lack of sufficient evidence meant the case against him wouldn't stand up in court. The Justice Department successfully pursued an injunction against the man seen holding a nightstick. He is barred him from visiting a polling station in Philadelphia for the next two years.
The Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility is looking into the handling of the New Black Panther Party case, and the department's inspector general recently announced he is investigating "more broadly the overall enforcement of civil rights laws by the Voting Section" of the Civil Rights Division, including "information about cases such as the New Black Panther Party matter and others."
In early October, Attorney General Eric Holder said the "notion that we are enforcing any civil rights laws -- voting or others -- on the basis of race, ethnicity or gender is simply false." He said, "Some people want to go back to [older] days and want to have a Civil Rights Division that is not nearly as effective as it is now or as it has traditionally been. I am not going to allow that to happen."
As for the investigation by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the group is expected to vote Friday on a draft of their final report, which might not be ready for release for another two months. One source with knowledge of the draft report said its recommendations and findings will focus largely on the commission's authority to compel testimony from witnesses like Coates.
House Republicans, meanwhile, have promised to launch their own investigations into the matter should they take control of Congress after next week's mid-term elections.