In a dramatic development that could shake the political leadership of the Justice Department, career lawyer Christopher Coates has sent a letter to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights offering to testify Friday on matters related to the controversial New Black Panthers voter-intimidation case.
Ten months ago, Coates, the award-winning former chief of the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division, was subpoenaed by the Commission to testify about the case. He was subsequently instructed by DOJ officials to ignore the subpoena. Within the past hour, commissioners were informed that Chairman Gerald Reynolds had spoken with Coates and that the chairman would reconvene the Commission’s ongoing hearing on Friday at 9:30 a.m. to hear Coates’s testimony.
The Civil Rights Commission has sought to obtain Coates’ testimony on Justice’s dismissal of the New Black Panther Party voter intimidation case in Philadelphia. In a recent request to Justice, the Commission agreed to limit initial questioning of Coates to accusations made by former career lawyer J. Christian Adams about statements and other actions by Julie Fernandes, an Obama administration political appointee, if DOJ produced Coates.
The DOJ refused.
Adams testified that Fernandes, a deputy assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division in charge of voting matters, told Voting Section leadership that the Obama administration would not file election-related cases against minority defendants — no matter the alleged violation of law.
Adams also testified that Fernandes said Justice would not enforce the provisions of Section 8 of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). Section 8 requires states to clean up voter registration lists on a regular basis by removing the names of ineligible voters who have died or moved away.
On Election Day 2008, two uniformed members of the New Black Panther Party — one wielding a club — were caught on video as they appeared to harass voters outside a Philadelphia polling place. The Voting Rights Section filed a civil lawsuit that the defendants did not answer, placing them in default.
However, the Justice Department dismissed virtually the entire case despite the objections of career attorneys.
Watch PJM for more on this remarkable news as it develops.
It is about to get harder for both the Obama administration and the mainstream media to downplay the New Black Panther party scandal.
The mainstream media did their best to ignore this blatant case of voter intimidation by two New Black Panther party members at a Philadelphia polling place on Election Day 2008. Though the threatening behavior was captured on videotape, Obama political appointees dismissed the case on the eve of a default judgment. When in early June a key trial team member, Justice Department attorney J. Christian Adams, resigned and then testified before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the media grudgingly reported on his testimony.
But, despite Adams’s testimony that the case was indicative of a widespread aversion in the Voting Section to colorblind enforcement of the civil rights laws, the media framed the story as an isolated case unworthy of continuing coverage. After all, just one witness was claiming that this was the mindset in the Justice Department. And besides, the head of the Civil Rights Division, Thomas Perez, had testified before both Congress and the commission that the case was legally and factually defective. He had also insisted there was no opposition in the department to enforcing civil rights laws against minority defendants.
In fact, there is ample evidence, including Justice Department emails obtained by The Weekly Standard, that Perez testified untruthfully. There is every reason to believe, moreover, that if allowed to testify, several other Justice Department attorneys would substantiate Adams’s allegations and contradict Perez’s sworn testimony. Not to mention that the department itself acknowledged last week that the matter of biased enforcement of voting laws requires investigation.
Until now, the Justice Department has refused to allow its lawyers to testify. On April 21, Jody Hunt, director of federal programs, whose office oversees the department’s dealings with other branches of government, emailed Adams’s attorney. Hunt explained:
On behalf of the Department of Justice, I have communicated to the Commission that your client has not been authorized to give testimony at the hearing. Indeed, as I understand it, your client has not been scheduled by the Commission to provide testimony at the hearing. The Commission has accepted the Department’s offer to hear testimony from Tom Perez, the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, at a separate hearing to be scheduled in May.
Department sources say that members of the trial team objected strongly and raised their objections with Hunt in writing. On May 11, for example, Adams emailed Hunt. He challenged the basis for the department’s refusal to allow his testimony, referring to his attorney’s legal citations. He then implored the department to change its position:
I would ask you to reconsider this decision and authorize at least one of the individuals who had factual and legal familiarity with the case to provide information to the Commission, whether me, former Voting Section Chief Christopher Coates, Deputy Chief Robert Popper, Attorney Spencer Fisher, or all four of us.
Adams specifically warned Hunt of the danger to the department in allowing an attorney unfamiliar with the New Black Panther party case, Perez, to testify instead of the attorneys who had the most direct knowledge of the case:
The first reason that the decision should be reconsidered is that there is the risk that inaccurate statements will be made about the case. I do not suggest that the scheduled witness will knowingly make false statements. Rather, my concern is that the scheduled witness did not participate in the case whatsoever, and will instead rely on characterizations of the facts and law provided by other Department employees, which I have reason to believe may be wildly inaccurate at best. Over the last several months, unattributed statements about the case by Department officials have been cited in media reports that are demonstrably false. Because the statements are never attributed, it is impossible to know whether these are people entirely unfamiliar with the matter, or are individuals upon whom the scheduled witness will rely. If the latter, there is a genuine risk that the scheduled witness will unknowingly provide inaccurate and incorrect testimony about the case. This could result in an extremely embarrassing situation for both the witness and the Department. . . . If the scheduled witness were to testify that there was no evidence, or insufficient or inadmissible evidence, to support agency liability [the legal theory for holding the New Black Panther Party and its head responsible], such testimony could prove to be grossly inaccurate.
He also warned Hunt:
Commanding our silence has created an inference that the attorneys who brought the case pursed a meritless action. Indeed, any future statements that the case did not have factual and legal merit would reinforce this false inference. For example, there was testimony to the House Judiciary Committee [by Perez] that “Rule 11 [prohibiting frivolous actions] required” the dismissal of the action. Not only is this statement inaccurate, but it also calls into question the ethics of the attorneys who approved and brought the case. I can attest that my three colleagues were thoughtful, diligent, hard working, and beyond reproach throughout this case. Their experience with the Voting Rights Act is unmatched in any other part of the Department. Indeed, I would submit Christopher Coates and Robert Popper have far more experience in litigating voting law combined than just about any pair of Department attorneys you could produce.
To put it bluntly, Adams was warning the Department that Perez had already testified inaccurately before Congress and that allowing him to do so again would be an intentional attempt to mislead the civil rights commission.
Shortly thereafter Adams received a call from the Voting Section head, Chris Herren. Herren said he understood Adams wanted to meet with Perez. Adams said he had not asked for a meeting. Herren repeated, “You said you wanted to meet with Perez.” Adams reiterated that he had not. It became obvious, however, that Perez wanted to meet with him.
Hunt arranged a meeting on Tuesday, May 12, three days before Perez was to testify before the civil rights commission. Adams, Popper, Perez, Hunt, and two other department attorneys met in the 5th floor conference room in the Main Justice Department building. Coates joined them by speaker phone.
Coates, Popper, and Adams spoke for approximately 45 minutes. Coates informed Perez that the case had been dismissed because of hostility to equal enforcement of the civil rights laws. Popper went next, explaining how solid the case was. He became animated and lashed out at Perez for testifying that the attorneys had violated Rule 11—that is, committed an ethical violation. Adams spoke last, making the case that the 14th Amendment required equal enforcement of the civil rights laws and that it was dangerous for the department and the country to go down the road of unequal enforcement of the law.
During the meeting Perez said nothing. Was he taking the information to heart so he could investigate the serious allegations or simply, like an attorney in an explosive case, taking the deposition of the most powerful witnesses to see how effective they were and what damage they could do?
The answer became clear that Friday when Perez testified before the civil rights commission. He reiterated his view that the case was legally and factually deficient. Perhaps wary of Popper’s reaction, he avoided restating that the trial team had acted contrary to Rule 11.
In any event, despite the Obama team’s best efforts to stonewall and the mainstream media’s indifference to an abuse of power in a Democratic administration, the notion that the New Black Panther party case is “no big deal” is crumbling. We know that a high ranking political appointee presented misleading testimony under oath and that multiple witnesses would testify to the Obama administration’s hostility to the equal enforcement of our civil rights laws. Now an internal investigation is exploring those issues. In a Republican administration that would be front-page news.