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 department officials, however, have vigorously defended their management of the Panthers’ case, in which two members of the small group allegedly attempted to intimidate voters at a Philadelphia polling place during the 2008 general election. Justice spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler in a statement Friday derided the Civil Rights Commission for its “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. The right 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.
Read More: By Josh Gerstein, Politico