WASHINGTON-The Justice Department's inspector general has opened an investigation into the agency's voting section after allegations surfaced over the past year that the section isn't enforcing laws equally.
An attorney in the section, J. Christian Adams, quit in May after he said the section refused to enforce certain parts of the Voting Rights Act relating to purging voter rolls. He also objected to the section dropping a clear case of voter intimidation involving the New Black Panther Party (NBPP). The Justice Department (DOJ) transferred another voting section attorney, Christopher Coates, who reportedly criticized the handling of the NBPP case. He now works at the U.S. attorney's office in South Carolina.
Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., whose district includes the suburbs of Washington where many federal workers reside, has heard from other DOJ employees who have shared concerns similar to Adams'. Wolf has written the Justice Department about the issue since June 2009, but the DOJ's inspector general, Glenn Fine, gave no indication that it would investigate until after Adams quit and testified publicly about the voting section.
In a letter Monday responding to Wolf and Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, Fine wrote that while the investigation would include the NBPP case, it will look "more broadly on the overall enforcement of civil rights laws by the voting section."
Fine's letter stated further: "This review will examine, among other issues, the types of cases brought by the voting rights section and any changes in these types of cases over time; any changes in the voting section enforcement policies or procedures over time; whether the voting section has enforced the civil rights laws in a non-discriminatory manner; and whether any voting section employees have been harassed for participating in the investigation or prosecution of particular matters."
Wolf and Smith welcomed the inspector general's response, as did Adams.
The DOJ, in official statements, has maintained that it pursues cases based simply on merits, without regard to race.
The DOJ's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) is already wrapping up an investigation into the specific handling of NBPP case. But the OPR is not an independent body-it answers to the attorney general. Thanks to the intricate bureaucracy of the DOJ, Fine contends that he cannot investigate specific cases-that is under the OPR's jurisdiction. Fine said in the letter that he would be happy to see that law changed so the inspector general could investigate specific cases, but as it stands he only has the right to investigate broader issues.
"I'm sure [Coates] unloaded on OPR," Adams told me. "I know I did."
The NBPP incident occurred on Election Day in 2008 when two New Black Panthers were videotaped standing outside a polling station in Philadelphia acting as "security," one of them holding a nightstick. Originally the voting section had won a default judgment in the case-which the Bush administration voting section brought-but the Obama administration voting section dropped the case before the final ruling, securing an agreement from the gentleman with the nightstick, King Samir Shabazz, that he would not display a weapon near polling places until 2012.
The current assistant attorney general of the DOJ's Civil Rights Division, Tom Perez, barred Coates from testifying to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which has investigated the handling of the NBPP case. Perez wrote in a letter to the commission that Coates wouldn't be an "appropriate witness" since he has been working in South Carolina.
But Adams is willing to speak for Coates, since they worked on the NBPP case together. What Coates experienced in the voting section, according to Adams, could shed more light on the section leadership's mentality: that voter protection laws are intended for minorities. He said Coates, as voting section chief, would ask potential hires a seemingly innocuous question: "Are you willing to enforce the law in an equal fashion?" Adams said when the acting assistant attorney general of the Civil Rights Division, Loretta King, (now the division's deputy assistant attorney general) heard about the question, she called Coates to her office and reprimanded him.
"It's viewed as an abrogation of civil rights statutes," said Adams, explaining the objection to the equal enforcement question. "These statutes were passed to help certain people."
Adams said that in the summer of 2009, Coates was stripped of his hiring power. About seven months later, he was transferred to South Carolina. "He had the best reputation of any voting section chief I worked for," Adams said. "He was on the cutting edge of voting rights law going back to the '70s."