Home  »  Politics  »  DOJ Prosecutor’s Testimony: Holder’s Department Of Justice Does Not Practice “Race Neutral” Enforcement Of Civil Rights Laws

Sep 24, 2010 8 Comments ›› Pat Dollard

Obama Black Caucus

Politico:

A Justice Department prosecutor defied his superiors by testifying at a U.S. Civil Rights Commission hearing Friday, where he leveled an explosive allegation: top officials in the department gutted a voter intimidation case against a fringe African American militant group because the suspects were black and their alleged victims were white.

The prosecutor, Christopher Coates, also said the downgrading of the case against the New Black Panther Party was evidence of a Justice Department culture which discouraged “race neutral” enforcement of civil rights laws, frowned on prosecuting minority perpetrators and folded under pressure from black and Latino rights groups. After President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder took office, the culture intensified, Coates told the panel, ultimately leading to his departure as chief of the voting rights section early this year.

“They have not pursued the goal of equal protection of the law for all people,” he said.

Justice officials have vigorously defended their management of the Panthers’ case, in which two members of the group allegedly attempted to intimidate voters at a Philadelphia polling place during the 2008 election. Justice spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler in a statement Friday derided the Civil Rights Commission for a “so-called investigation” that is “thin on facts and evidence and thick on rhetoric.”

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

But activists on the right have complained that Holder and the White House did not vigorously pursue the case because the victims were white – a claim that has now become a widespread talking point among Obama’s conservative critics. They cried foul last year when Justice officials dropped the case against the NBPP and two defendants for lack of evidence and sought a watered-down injunction against the bearer of a nightstick who allegedly carried it to threaten whites.

Coates’ highly-charged testimony before the Civil Rights Commission echoed those allegations, as well as the testimony of J. Christian Adams, one of Coates’ colleagues in the voting rights section.
In July, Adams told the commission that the pattern of prosecuting white suspects and ignoring minority ones was part of a “lawless” atmosphere, and the handling of the New Black Panther case led him to resign in 2009. Since leaving the department, Adams has been an outspoken critic on the right, appearing on Fox News and writing withering articles for conservative publications.

Commission Chairman Gerald Reynolds said Coates “appears here at great personal risk to himself. I’d like to thank Mr. Coates for his courage in appearing today.”

Justice Department officials pointed to comments from Commissioner Abigail Thernstrom – a conservative-leaning race expert who has called the NBPP case “small potatoes” and has questioned the commission’s pursuit of it. Thernstrom said nothing of substance during Friday’s hearing, ceding her time to another panelist and declining to discuss the case with reporters.

Reading from a prepared statement, Coates – a 13-year civil rights prosecutor appointed by President Bill Clinton who also served under President George W. Bush – said he resisted department pressure to focus solely on prosecuting whites rather than blacks or other minorities accused of race-based voting violations. The atmosphere worsened after Obama took office, he said, reaching a turning point with the case against the New Black Panthers.

Though video showed two black men in paramilitary gear harassing whites outside a polling place in Philadelphia, Coates said, his supervisors downplayed the case because the alleged perpetrators were black. Yet if the two suspects instead were white-robed Ku Klux Klansmen menacing black voters, Coates told the panel, there would have been widespread uproar and demands for justice.

Justice Department officials pointed to comments from Commissioner Abigail Thernstrom – a right-leaning race expert who has called the NBPP case “small potatoes” and questioned why the commission has pursued it. Thernstrom said nothing of substance during Friday’s hearing, ceding her time to another panelist and declining to discuss the case with reporters.

Reading from a prepared statement, Coates – a 13-year civil rights prosecutor appointed by President Bill Clinton who also served under President George W. Bush – said he resisted department pressure to focus solely on prosecuting whites rather than blacks or other minorities accused of race-based voting violations. The atmosphere worsened after Obama took office, he said, reaching a turning point with the case against the New Black Panthers.

Though video showed two members in paramilitary gear harassing whites outside a polling place in Philadelphia, Coates said, his supervisors downplayed the case because the alleged perpetrators were black. Yet if the two suspects were white-robed Ku Klux Klansmen menacing black voters, Coates told the panel, there would have been widespread uproar and demands for justice.

Coates accused the Justice Department of caving in to outside influence groups, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which he said demanded that prosecutors drop the case. “Many of these groups act…as special interest lobbies for racial and ethnic minorities and demand not equal treatment but enforcement of the Voting Rights Act only for racial and language minorities,” Coates said.

The outcome of the New Black Panthers Party case, he said, confirmed his concerns that the top ranks at Justice are interested only in protecting minorities.

Coates said the Justice Department’s efforts to silence him threatened to obscure what he called “the hostile atmosphere that has existed within [Justice’s Civil Rights] Division for a long time against race-neutral enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.”

“I did not lightly decide to comply with your subpoena in contradiction to the DOJ’s directives not to testify,” Coates said. “If incorrect representations are going to successfully thwart inquiry into the systemic problems regarding race-neutral enforcement of the Voting Rights Act by the Civil Rights Division, problems that were manifested….in the New Black Panther Party case that end is not going to be furthered or accomplished by my sitting idly or silently by at the direction of my supervisors while incorrect information is provided.

“I do not believe that I am professionally, ethically, legally, or morally bound to allow such a result to occur,” Coates said.

The Justice Department has said it advised Coates not to testify to avoid chilling the free-flowing exchange of information among department attorneys as cases are considered and prosecution decisions are made.

Coates said Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez’s testimony in May, defending the department’s handling of the NBPP case, “did not accurately reflect” what led to the decision to drop much of the case. Coates said Perez may not have been aware of all aspects of the matter, especially since he took over after others at Justice had decided to downgrade the case.

However, Democratic commissioner Michael Yaki suggested that there were weaknesses in the Justice Department’s case against the Panthers, including no white voters complaining they were intimidated. Yaki asked Coates why the initial investigation into the Panthers took about 45 days, rather than more typical months or years other civil rights cases take.