An Obama administration official at the Justice Department told a subordinate that he wouldn’t accept the outright dismissal of a high-profile civil voter intimidation case against members of the New Black Panther Party, according to a report by DOJ’s internal ethics office.
The report from DOJ’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) found that Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perrelli told Loretta King (the then-acting Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Division) that he “would accept any outcome in the case so long as the entire case was not dismissed outright (because a man with a nightstick at a polling place appeared to present a case of voter intimidation) and the proposed relief did not violate the Constitution.” Adam Serwer first reported on the conclusions of the full OPR report, which was posted online by the Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee this afternoon.
OPR’s finding is in direct opposition to the narrative that has been making its way through the conservative media in the nearly two years since the Obama administration obtained an injunction against the New Black Panther who was seen on a widely circulated video holding a nightstick outside of a polling place in Philadelphia. In 2009, DOJ dropped the case against another New Black Panther and the national party. Republicans in Congress have even gone as far as to call the extremist fringe group a “political ally” of the Obama administration.
King, who is a career lawyer in the Civil Rights Division but was temporarily serving in a politically appointed position in 2009 when she made the decision on how to proceed in the NBPP case, told OPR that the complaint written by the NBPP team appeared to be full of hyperbole and exaggeration.
The OPR report also indicates that, unsurprisingly, Attorney General Eric Holder isn’t an active Fox News viewer. He told OPR that a meeting on May 5, 2009 in which King informed him of the litigation decision she was considering making with the voter intimidation suit was the first time he recalled learning about the NBPP incident. During the meeting, said OPR, Holder “acknowledged the negative media attention that might result from King’s decision.”
The gist of OPR’s findings was previously disclosed in a letter to members of Congress and a full copy of the report was sent to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Ranking Member Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) this week.
The 79-page report traces the genesis of the civil voter intimidation case back to Election Day 2008, when two Civil Rights Division lawyers (one in the Voting Section and another in the Criminal Section) learned of the story in the early afternoon. They shared the story, which had been reported on Fox News, with colleagues monitoring and responding to elections issues.
Craig Donsanto, who was the director of the Election Crimes Branch of the Public Integrity Section of DOJ’s Criminal Division, emailed a number of Justice Department employees as well as the U.S. Attorney’s office in Pennsylvania and the FBI on Nov. 4, 2008. He wrote in the 2:53 p.m. email:
The report also describes a bizarre scene in which two DOJ lawyers (whose names are redacted but based on publicly available records are J. Christian Adams and Spencer Fisher) traveled to Philadelphia on Dec. 20, 2008 and showed up unannounced at the home of a couple who were serving as poll watchers for the Republican Party on Election Day. One of the lawyers told OPR that he vehemently argued against traveling to Philadelphia the weekend before Christmas, but that then-Deputy Chief of the Voting Section Robert Popper instructed them to do so.
They didn’t record the interview or take any notes, but one of the attorneys said in an email written on the train ride back to Washington that the couple told them they didn’t have any interaction with the New Black Panthers and that the husband emphasized that he wasn’t scared by the two men. The DOJ attorney wrote that he believed they were the type of witnesses who would only be forthcoming if they were able to develop a trust and that he thought there was more to the story than the couple was willing to tell them when they showed up on their door on the Saturday evening before Christmas.
There’s plenty more about how the decision played out in the full report, which is embedded below. But there’s one part of the report that you can expect to raise the ire of conservatives going forward: the statement of Julie Fernandes in response to allegations from former Justice Department attorney J. Christian Adams and former Voting Section Chief Christopher Coates (both of whom were tied to the politicization of the Civil Rights Division during the Bush administration) that the Justice Department isn’t interested in enforcing a provision of the National Voter Registration Act, which requires states to clean up their voter roles. From the report:
Fernandes told OPR that section 8 protects against voter fraud and that, when it comes to prioritizing work in the Division with limited resources, combating voter fraud (as opposed to finding ways to promote voter access) is not her top priority. Nonetheless, Fernandes said that she would consider authorizing suit in a meritorious section 8 case if one were presented to her.
Here’s the full OPR report:
[Ed. note: Dates have been added to this story for clarity.]