Meeting Turns Into Battle Over New Black Panthers Case

A regularly scheduled "business meeting" of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on Friday turned into a fiery shout fest -- finger-pointing and all -- over whether the Justice Department was "stonewalling" their investigation into a controversial voting rights case, whether that investigation has been fruitful, and whether the commission can even fulfill its mission anymore.

For more than a year, the commission has been looking into why the Obama administration reversed course on a federal lawsuit against two members of the New Black Panther Party, who were videotaped outside a Philadelphia polling station on Election Day 2008. The two were dressed in military-style uniforms, and one was holding a nightstick. The issue escalated in June when a former Justice Department attorney alleged it was all part of an Obama administration policy to avoid prosecuting minorities, an allegation the Justice Department has strongly denied.

The former Justice Department attorney, J. Christian Adams, has said that Christopher Coates, head of the Voting Rights section at the time, could corroborate his allegations. But the Justice Department has blocked Coates from complying with a subpoena for his testimony.

An Independent member of the commission, Todd Gaziano, said "stonewalling of the Justice Department" means the commission "won't be able to make findings of facts," but members from both sides of the aisle agreed the investigation has uncovered a "larger issue" over whether the law allows the commission to take the Justice Department to court to enforce subpoenas.

"Are we an independent commission with the ability to make a determination as to what we deem to be relevant and important information that we want to review," Republican commissioner Ashley Taylor asked, "or are we a commission that can ask a question and when rebuffed must go away?"

Democrat Michael Yaki, though, said questions about the commission's authority and relevance go even further, when what is supposed to be an "independent" and "bipartisan" commission looking at civil rights issues across the country has "spent over a year and a half obssessing about whether or not there is some sort of kabal, conspiracy, culture at" the Justice Department and done "very little about what is going on in the outside world."

At one point, Gaziano interrupted Yaki, prompting Yaki to point his finger at Gaziano and say sternly, "If you would just stop interrupting me!" Gaziano then pleaded with Yaki to "stop bloviating."

The chairman of the commission, Republican Gerald Reynolds, jumped in, telling Yaki, "You have mud on your hands ... because you escalated it" unnecessarily. "Please show some discipline," he implored.

During the one-hour discussion about the New Black Panthers case investigation, commissioners erupted into shouting over each other at least six times. One such episode lasted a full minute, with Reynolds interrupting to say, "I will not have this useless exchange."

In fact, Reynolds suggested at one point, the entire debate over Adams' allegations could be brought to an end if Coates would testify.

"The simplest thing in the world to do for the Department of Justice, in terms of putting this to bed, is to turn to Mr. Coates and instruct him to go testify," Reynolds said. "He will either refute the statements made by Mr. Adams on this point, or he will confirm them."

Gaziano agreed, saying commissioners "have sworn testimony" from Adams, "and the Department has still neither admitted, denied or commented on that statement."

But Yaki said suggestions that Adams' "sworn testimony" amounts to evidence are "a farce" and "a joke," calling Adams' testimony "not credible to say the least."

"There was sworn testimony by one individual, who's no longer an employee, about a statement by another individual who said he heard it from a third individual," Yaki said.

In a letter sent to the commission on Wednesday, Perez, who testified before the commission in May, said the Justice Department "is firmly committed to the evenhanded application of the law, without regard to the race of the victims or perpetrators of unlawful behavior."

"Any suggestion to the contrary is simply untrue," Perez wrote, pointing to "our ongoing work in Mississippi," where the Justice Department recently filed a motion to stop Democratic officials from discriminating against white voters.

Commissioner Peter Kirsanow, a Republican, said Perez's letter "gave us the back of the hand," and Gaziano said Perez "continues to refuse to allow Chris Coates to testify when it's clear that he would have relevant and material evidence to present."

But Yaki insisted that the letter offers "proof" that "all this blowing smoke is just that."

"It shows actual actions by the Department of Justice that completely bely the claims made by [Adams]," he said. "The letter states very clearly that ... [when an] African-American was doing all these pretty awful things to suppress the white vote, the Department of Justice got involved."

In addition, Abigail Thernstrom, the Republican Vice-Chair of the commission who has been an outspoken critic of the New Black Panther case investigation, said there "can be perfectly legitimate internal reasons" for the Justice Department's refusal to comply with the commission's subpoena.

"If Republicans were running the Justice Department, I think that for reasons of internal management to the department they would undoubtedly handle this in the same way that Perez is," Thernstrom said. "It seems to me we're talking about how Washington works. ... We are not uniquely victimized here."

Gaziano called that a "strange notion" disputed by history, and he offered a motion urging Congress to amend the law creating the commission or write new laws to clarify what can be done if the Justice Department has a "conflict of interest." The motion passed by a vote of 5 to 3.

The commission is currently working on a report about its investigation into the New Black Panthers case.

A month after the Justice Department won a default judgment against the two defendants in April 2009, 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. That injunction bars him from visiting a polling station in Philadelphia for the next two years.