The US Commission of Civil Rights investigation of a possible Justice Department cover-up relating to the New Black Panther voter intimidation case is heating up big time. Today’s regularly scheduled meeting of the Commission almost turned into a a hockey game as an argument broke out over the possible cover-up,whether that investigation has been fruitful, and whether the commission can even fulfill its mission anymore.

For almost a year the U.S Commission of Civil Rights has been trying to get to the bottom of the DOJ’s dropping an already won case against the New Black Panthers for voter intimidation. The Commission sent subpoenas to the DOJ, but the Justice Department decided to ignore the subpoena and it seemed the cover up was complete

The investigation has taken on some new momentum after J. Christian Adams, one of the lawyers who helped file the case against the Panthers, resigned from the Justice Department so he could testify. In early July  Adams testified before the Commission saying that the DOJ enforced the law when African-Americans were the victims, but not when Caucasians were intimidated from voting.

Adams, testified that Christopher Coates, head of the Voting Rights section at the time, could corroborate his allegations. But the Justice Department has blocked Coates from complying with a subpoena for his testimony.

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The Commission of Civil Rights followed up with a sharply worded letter to senior Justice Department official Thomas Perez, who heads the Civil Rights Division demanding that they allow Coats to testify, saying the “extraordinary” testimony by Adams “raises grave questions” about whether the lawyers and managers in the Department believe in “color-blind” enforcement of civil rights laws “specifically, whether they should be enforced against all Americans equally and whether those protections apply with equal force to citizens of all races.”

Today’s meeting of the Commission was the first one scheduled after the letter was issued and it turned into a free for all debate about whether the Civil Rights group could take the DOJ to court.

An Independent member of the commission, Todd Gaziano, said “stonewalling of the Justice Department” means the commission “won’t be able to make findings of facts,” but members from both sides of the aisle agreed the investigation has uncovered a “larger issue” over whether the law allows the commission to take the Justice Department to court to enforce subpoenas.

“Are we an independent commission with the ability to make a determination as to what we deem to be relevant and important information that we want to review,” Republican commissioner Ashley Taylor asked, “or are we a commission that can ask a question and when rebuffed must go away?”

The sixty minute battle about the New Black Panther case became a shouting match at least six times, one loud exchange lasted a full minute, with Chairman Reynolds interrupting to say, “I will not have this useless exchange.” 

Justice Department official Thomas Perez responded the Commissions July letter earlier this week  saying that the DOJ “is firmly committed to the evenhanded application of the law, without regard to the race of the victims or perpetrators of unlawful behavior.”

“Any suggestion to the contrary is simply untrue,” Perez wrote, pointing to “our ongoing work in Mississippi,” where the Justice Department recently filed a motion to stop Democratic officials from discriminating against white voters.

Commissioner Peter Kirsanow, a Republican, said Perez’s letter “gave us the back of the hand,” and Gaziano said Perez “continues to refuse to allow Chris Coates to testify when it’s clear that he would have relevant and material evidence to present.”

Abigail Thernstrom, the Republican Vice-Chair of the commission who has been an outspoken critic of the New Black Panther case investigation, said there “can be perfectly legitimate internal reasons” for the Justice Department’s refusal to comply with the commission’s subpoena.

“If Republicans were running the Justice Department, I think that for reasons of internal management to the department they would undoubtedly handle this in the same way that Perez is,” Thernstrom said. 

To end the dispute, the Commission passed a resolution by a vote of 5 to 3 urging Congress to amend the law creating the commission, or write new laws to clarify what can be done if the Justice Department has a “conflict of interest.”

Is it a cover-up or is it standard operating procedure for the DOJ to prevent Christopher Coates from testifying? You could make a strong case both ways.  The real key argument is with this case being so controversial, why wouldn’t the DOJ want Coates to testify and just end it? Logic would dictate that if there was nothing to hide they would allow the testimony.