Justice Department finds no wrongdoing in handling of Pantherscase

Federal attorneys did not act unprofessionally by dropping voting-rights charges against two of three New Black Panther Party members allegedly involved in voter intimidation at a Fairmount Avenue polling place in 2008, a Justice Department internal review has concluded.

The case has received wide attention from Republicans unhappy with the way the Obama administration has handled it. The alleged harassment at 12th Street and Fairmount received virtually no attention in Philadelphia when it occurred Nov. 4, 2008, the day of President Obama's election.

Some conservative activists have said political and racial favoritism prompted the decision to drop charges. An injunction was issued against the third man.

The controversy erupted in 2010 after a former Justice Department attorney, J. Christian Adams, said politics had prompted the dismissal of the charges. Rep. Lamar Smith (R., Texas) asked for an inquiry.

The department's Office of Professional Responsibility said this week that, after conducting 44 interviews with individuals involved in the case, there was no basis to claim political influence was involved.

"We found no evidence that the decision to dismiss the case against three of the four defendants was predicated on political considerations," the office said in a letter to Smith. The fourth defendant was the New Black Panther Party itself.

The letter also said there was "no evidence" that Civil Rights Division attorneys had based their decision on the "race of the defendants."

Smith appeared to reject those findings. In a one-paragraph response, he said the Office of Professional Responsibility "did not address" what he called a "misguided policy of using racial considerations when determining whether to enforce voting rights laws."

Smith said another investigation, by the department's inspector general, was under way to determine whether civil-rights attorneys "have used race as a litmus test for the enforcement of voting-rights laws."

The three New Black Panthers never appeared in court or hired an attorney. The Office of Professional Responsibility's report says charges against two men were dropped after Justice Department attorneys concluded that it was not necessary to seek a "nationwide injunction" against each defendant.

Instead, a federal judge ordered a single defendant, King Samir Shabazz, also known as Maurice Heath, to not display any weapon within 100 feet of a polling place, and to refrain from engaging in any "coercing, threatening or intimidating behavior." Shabazz was one of the men at the polling place, and court documents say he had a nightstick and made disparaging racial comments to both black and white voters.

Smith and the Office of Professional Responsibility declined requests for an interview.


Contact staff writer Nathan Gorenstein at 215-854-2797 or ngorenstein@phillynews.com.