Justice Department attorney Christopher Coates testified today that the Bush-era DOJ ignored his recommendation to investigate allegations that armed agents in Mississippi intimidated black voters.
Coates, who wanted the DOJ under Obama to pursue additional voter-intimidation charges against members of the New Black Panther Party, testified today before the conservative-dominated U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The Republican vice chairwoman of the commission has criticized the inquiry as part of a "wild notion" conservatives on the commission have to "topple" the Obama administration.
During the hearing, Coates testified that in 2005, Bradley Schlozman overrode his recommendation to continue investigating claims that officials in the Mississippi Attorney General's office intimidated black voters:
COMMISSIONER MICHAEL YAKI: You were also there in 2005. There were allegations that investigators for the State of Mississippi who were armed went into the homes of elderly, minority voters, in municipal elections asking them who they voted for. Generally for them, they felt very intimidated. I believe that a complaint was relayed to the Civil Rights Division. Can you tell me what the disposition of that complaint was?
COATES: Yes. And since Mr. Perez talked about that in his testimony, I'm going to talk about that, too. I was in charge of that investigation as the principal deputy. And we interviewed African-American voters in Panola - the name or that jurisdiction is Panola County Mississippi. We interviewed telephonically witnesses who had some investigators from the Attorney General's office come in. They were doing a voter fraud investigation. They asked these people they interviewed for whom they voted.
There is a Mississippi law that prohibits that except in very special circumstances. Judge Lee, for example, in the Ike Brown case would not let lawyers on either side ask for whom people voted. We did that investigation, and I recommended that we do a complete investigation in Panola County, because I felt that those questions were inappropriate and improper, and it was not a way to conduct, properly conduct a voting fraud investigation. My recommendation in that regard was not followed, and the matter was not followed up.
YAKI: Who did you send the recommendation to?
COATES: Mr. Schlozman.
The Justice Department Office of Professional Responsibility and Inspector General's office concluded in its 2008 report that Schlozman improperly politicized ideology in making personnel decisions and discussed removing "disloyal" "liberals" while hiring conservative "real Americans."
Coates' testimony has been lauded by right-wing activists, who have been pushing discredited claims that the decision not to pursue additional charges against the New Black Panthers was based on "hostility" in the Obama DOJ against enforcing voting-rights laws against black defendants.
In May, Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez testified before the commission and specifically cited the DOJ's decision not to continue investigating the Mississippi case in 2005 -- in addition to the Bush-era decision not to pursue charges against armed Minutemen allegedly intimidating white voters in Arizona -- to illustrate that DOJ attorneys often disagree over whether to pursue cases.
During that hearing, Commissioner Yaki pointed out the inconsistency:
When you look at what happened during the Bush administration, when you look at the fact that they declined people wearing guns and intimidating Latino voters, that they declined people interviewing elderly black voters in their homes in Mississippi, interviewing elderly Latino voters in New Mexico, going into Philadelphia in sort of Men in Black-type outfits and this Commission has turned a blind eye to that for years, turned a blind eye to Katrina, turned a blind eye to so many other issues but, somehow in this particular instance, we're going to find fault with the Justice Department is the height, height of hypocrisy.
Speaking of the height of hypocrisy, I don't envision Fox News devoting more than 100 segments to the Bush-era DOJ's decision not to follow Coates' recommendation and investigate allegations that armed officials in Mississippi intimidated black voters.