An official who formerly monitored civil rights for the Justice Department said Friday that his higher-ups told lawyers they are not interested in pursuing Voting Rights Act accusations against minorities who harass white voters.

A large number of people inside the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division "believe, incorrectly but vehemently, that enforcement of the VRA should not be extended to white voters but should be limited to protecting racial, ethnic and language minorities," said Christopher Coates, the former chief of the Justice Department's Voting Section.

Coates, who ran the Voting Section under President George W. Bush, testified in front of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which is looking into the department's handling of voting rights accusations against the New Black Panther Party in Philadelphia.

Coates now works for the U.S. attorney in South Carolina.

The Justice Department denies the accusation.

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

The department investigated complaints that New Black Panther Party leaders King Samir Shabazz and Jerry Jackson intimidated white voters at a Philadelphia polling place in 2008. A criminal investigation into the episode was dropped by the Bush administration, but the Obama Justice Department obtained a narrower civil court order against the conduct than Bush officials had sought.

That result has inflamed conservatives, who accuse the Justice Department of allowing political interference in this case.