WASHINGTON (CN) – Members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights railed against the Justice Department on Friday for what it says is the department’s failure to turn over documentation related to the agency’s dismissal of a voter intimidation lawsuit against the New Black Panther Party.
“The degree of stonewalling that the Department of Justice has engaged in is unprecedented in the commission’s 53-year history,” Commissioner Todd Gaziano said at a meeting Friday. “Escalating stonewalling raises questions about what they have to hide.”
The bipartisan commission is investigating the Justice Department’s dismissal of nearly all its claims in a lawsuit that accused members of the New Black Panther Party of intimidating voters outside a polling place in Philadelphia during the 2008 presidential election. Two members of the party allegedly stood outside polling stations holding police batons, blocked access to the polling stations, and yelled out racial slurs. The commission is investigating whether or not there were political motives for dropping charges in the lawsuit.
Gaziano asserts that the agency began stonewalling in summer 2009, failing to comply with subpoenas and instructing its employees, including those who had resigned, not to testify before the committee, Gaziano said.
Gaziano said the agency has released 4,000 documents to the commission, but none of the “critical” emails between the then-Deputy Attorney General David Ogden and Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli concerning the case.
Gaziano said the Justice Department forbade agency attorney Chris Coates from testifying even though he promised to abide by the agency’s “bogus” privileges.
The Justice Department said it would not release information on the case until it completed its own internal investigation of the matter, “which I should add, it still has not completed,” Gaziano said.
The department has “dragged out their nonresponses, and they have made up a series of humorous nonprivileges that would make Nixon and his cronies proud,” Gaziano said.
The only way that Justice could avoid federal law requiring it to “cooperate fully with the commission” is to invoke constitutional privilege, which the president has failed to do, Gaziano said.
Gaziano said because the department has not provided a “plausible explanation” for its behavior, “reasonable people are going to suspect that [it has] something terrible to hide.”
Gaziano said the commission received a memo from Justice late Thursday night saying that they would inform the commission soon as to whether or not they would turn over the requested documents.
Gaziano remarked sarcastically that Justice agreed to “actually receive” the next set of subpoenas.
The commission is scheduled to vote on approve its interim enforcement report on the Justice Department’s handling of the case next Friday. Gaziano said he hopes after issuing report the department will be more “forthcoming.”
“I’m not sure what you do with an agency that is recalcitrant,” Commission Chair Gerald Reynolds said. He suggested sending letters and scheduling face-to-face meetings.
Gaziano recommended that Congress either amend statutory guidelines for the commission to require the attorney general to personally respond in cases involving the Justice Department, allow the commission to hire its own counsel to enforce subpoenas, especially in cases involving the Justice Department, or allow the department to “act against the commission’s interest without any particular explanation.”