By Mary Jacoby
October 5, 2009
Democratic members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights are accusing the agency’s conservative majority of acting in an “improperly partisan” manner in challenging the Obama Justice Department’s handling of the New Black Panther Party case.
The dispute stems from a May decision by the DOJ to dismiss most of a government voter intimidation case filed in the waning days of the Bush administration against members of the militant black-power group, two of whom were videotaped outside a Philadelphia polling place last November in quasi-military garb.
The controversy – which has been fanned by conservative bloggers and commentators and Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill – has become a significant distraction for Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department and contributed to a delay in confirming Civil Rights Division nominee Tom Perez.
The two Democrats on the eight-member Civil Rights Commission weighed in publicly for the first time last week, sending this letter to Holder outlining their objections.
On Sept 11., the commission voted to devote most of its 2009 annual report to an examination of the Black Panther case, to the exclusion of other civil rights matters, the letter said. Democratic commissioner Michael Yaki walked out of that meeting in protest and did not vote, according to the letter and interviews with commission members.
Yaki and the other Democrat on the commission, Arlan D. Melendez, said in their Oct. 1 letter to Holder that they find the agency’s decision to elevate the matter “deeply troubling.” They added that commission majority does “not have our support.”
“If our colleagues were truly interested in whether our federal government is adequately tackling allegations of voter intimidation, we would support a serious comprehensive review of how all such complaints have been handled by the Department over the past decade,” the Democratic commission members wrote.
Independent commission member Todd Gaziano, director of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said in an interview, “To suggest that there is some partisan motive is … laughable.”
But the Democratic members of the agency say Gaziano is a leader of the move to elevate the issue. They said in their letter to Holder that the Heritage Foundation official proposed expanding the commission’s investigation and nominated himself to a special subcommittee of the commission that will assume control of the investigation from career commission staff. The Democrats say they are boycotting this special subcommittee probe.
The Democrats also noted that Hans Von Spakovsky, a former Civil Rights Division official who was accused by Democrats of helping politicize the division during the Bush administration, formerly served as a consultant to Gaziano on the commission and now works with him at the Heritage Foundation. Von Spakovsky has been critical of the Black Panther case dismissal, writing in the National Review Online that “liberal and partisan” staff at the DOJ undermine the credibility of an internal ethics investigation now underway by the department’s Office of Professional Responsibility, the letter said. ...