A veteran Justice Department lawyer accused his agency Friday of being unwilling to pursue racial discrimination cases on behalf of white voters, turning what had been a lower-level controversy into an escalating political headache for the Obama administration.
Christopher Coates's testimony before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights was the latest fallout from the department's handling of a 2008 voter-intimidation case involving the New Black Panther Party. Conservatives and some congressional Republicans accuse Justice officials of improperly narrowing the charges, allegations that they strongly dispute.
Filed weeks before the Obama administration took office, the case focused on two party members who stood in front of a polling place in Philadelphia on Election Day 2008, one carrying a nightstick. The men were captured on video and were accused of trying to discourage some people from voting.
Coates, former head of the voting section that brought the case, testified in defiance of his supervisor's instructions and has been granted whistleblower protection. Coates criticized what he called the "gutting" of the New Black Panthers case for "irrational reasons," saying the decision was part of "deep-seated" opposition among the department's leaders to filing voting-rights cases against minorities and cases that protect whites.
"I had people who told me point-blank that [they] didn't come to the voting rights section to sue African American people," said Coates, who transferred to the U.S. attorney's office in South Carolina in January. "When you are paid by the taxpayer, that is totally indefensible."
The rare spectacle of a Justice Department lawyer publicly rebuking the department's leaders came amid heightened legal and political fallout from the case. The commission is to issue a report on the matter next month, and an internal probe by the department's Office of Professional Responsibility is pending.
In his testimony, Coates said the current Justice Department is "at war" with "race-neutral" enforcement of civil rights laws. He also said there is evidence for broader prosecution of the New Black Panther case.
"We had eyewitness testimony. We had videotape. One of them had a weapon. They were hurling racial slurs," Coates said. "I've never been able to understand how anyone could accuse us of not having a basis of law in this case." (Full story here)