July 14, 2010

J. Christian Adams Takes On the Public Record and Loses

AUTHOR'S NOTE:  Key points in this post are a bit esoteric, and the timelines and roles of the individuals involved are somewhat challenging. However, the accusations that are being made in conservative circles and by rightwing media outlets - that there is institutionalized racism against whites at the Department of Justice under President Obama - are not only serious, but also reliant on that same complexity for their success to date, as it is sufficient barrier to prevent most consumers of news from digging further.  With that in mind, I have endeavored to clarify the issues as much as possible, and in addition to the extensive citations I always include, have provided additional links after the post. 

During the 2008 presidential elections, two members of the New Black Panther Party (NBPP) - an organization categorized as a racist hate group by both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and condemned by the members of the original Black Panthers - were observed outside a polling place in Philadelphia, PA. Both men were attired in the paramilitary dress of the NBPP's "militia," and while one of them was actually a fully-credentialed election observer, the other was not, and carried a nightstick. Local police were called to the scene, and the man with the truncheon was removed from the premises.

On January 7, 2009, the Department of Justice (DOJ) dropped criminal charges, but filed a civil suit over the incident against the New Black Panther Party and three of its members, alleging violations of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The suit sought an injunction preventing further violations of the Act, and when the defendants failed to appear in court, a default judgment - essentially a forfeit by the NBPP - was handed down in favor of the government. The following May, the DOJ requested and received an injunction against the man who had carried the nightstick, but ordered the suit against the remaining members dropped citing the lack of a pattern of intimidation.  (The Philadelphia District Attorney's office stated categorically that it did not receive a single complaint about voter intimidation at the poll where the incident occurred.)

The decision to drop charges against the NBPP and its members, however, has not gone quietly into the night.  In a two-part interview with Fox New Channel's Megyn Kelly (links: part 1part 2), former Justice Department attorney J. Christian Adams alleged that the Obama Administration not only improperly failed to pursue justice agasinst the New Black Panther Party and its members, but that the decision to do so was part of a broader agenda of institutionalized racial prejudice against whites:
There is a hostility in the voting section and in the Civil Rights Division to bringing cases on behalf of white victims for the benefit of national racial minorities. That's a fact. It was on open display in the department.
The story has been picked up by just about every major right wing pundit, and Fox's Kelly has aggressively pursued Mr. Adams' allegations, echoing in subsequent broadcasts his statement that "there is a mandate" at the DOJ to refuse prosecution of voter intimidation cases in which the perpetrator is black and the victim white.  To lend added weight to these claims, Ms. Kelly brought onto her program a man named Bartle Bull - who was described as a Democratic civil rights attorney who had worked with both Robert and Ted Kennedy - to condemn what they agreed was an unprecedented failure to enforce the Voting Rights Act:

This is indeed a serious charge, if true.  However, although this particular propaganda effort is more complicated to untangle than the recent claim on FoxNation.com that President Obama had "given a major strip of AZ back to Mexico", it is every bit as much a fantasy.

To begin with, the players involved are hardly the apolitical - or even liberal - figures they claim or are potrayed to be.  Bartle Bull, for instance, testifed under oath (PDF) that he was a poll watcher for the McCain/Palin campaign during the 2008 election, and chairman of a group called Democrats for McCain in New York State.  There's certainly nothing wrong or unsavory about that fact, but it's a glaring omission from the Fox interviews with Mr. Bull, given the wealth of other information provided about him.  On Fox, Mr. Bull is purposefully cast as the antithesis of a conservative mouth piece, but that's because knowing he campaigned actively for John McCain would make the viewer question his motivations.  (Especially given the fact that, again, no complaints of voter intimidation at the polling station in question were filed with the Philadelphia District Attorney.)

J. Christian Adams, meanwhile, is, in fact, directly tied to the politicization of the Department of Justice, but through the U.S. Attorneys scandal during George W. Bush's second term, rather than by malfeasance from the Obama White House. For those who aren't familiar with said scandal, investigators from the Department of Justice's Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility came to the following conclusions (full report here) about recruiting and advancement practices in the DOJ's Civil Rights Division under Bradley Schlozman, who hired Mr. Adams in 2005:
  1. The Civil Rights Division improperly used political or ideological affiliations in assessing applicants for career attorney positions, including hiring for both experienced attorneys and entry-level attorneys through the Honors Program;
  2. Political or ideological affiliations resulted in other personnel actions that affected career attorneys in the Division, such as attorney transfers and attorney case assignments;
  3. The Division’s senior management exercised inappropriate oversight of Schlozman’s actions in the hiring and treatment of career attorneys; and
  4. Schlozman made false statements in his testimony to Congress about these matters.
To be fair, the fact that Mr. Adams was hired by a man known to have actively subverted the impartiality of the Department of Justice through biased recruitment and management practices doesn't mean he himself is biased.  However, Mr. Adams has been pretty public about his rightist leanings, arguing on a conservative blog that health care reform is a threat to liberty, and penning an article comparing President Obama to advocates for the appeasement of Nazi Germany, among other activities.  Again, there is nothing illegal or even necessarily nefarious about either of these facts, but they represent behavior that is far from typical among career attorneys at the Department of Justice, who almost universally - at least prior to the Bush Administration - strive to remain as politically neutral as possible. 

Taking this information as background, we come to the substantive - and substantial - problems with the "Racism at the DOJ" storyline.  First, Mr. Adams admitted in his interview with Megyn Kelly that he actually has no firsthand knowledge of the allegations he is making. During his conversation with the Fox News host, he stated that he wasn't present during some of the events he describes, and that he relied on the statements of others - heresay, in other words - for significant elements of his accusations. Additionally, he refused to name the person who supposedly called for the anti-white voter intimidation mandate he claims exists.  (Mr. Adams named names in later public comments, but I'll address that below.)

Second, and far more importantly, according to testimony (PDF) by Civil Rights Division chief Thomas Perez before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights back in May:
After reviewing the matter, the Civil Rights Division determined that the facts did not constitute a prosecutable violation of the criminal statutes. The Department did, however, file a civil action on January 7th, 2009, seeking injunctive and declaratory relief under 11(b) against four defendants.
The date described in the testimony above indicates that the decision not to bring criminal charges against the New Black Panther Party members at the Philadelphia polling station was made by the Bush Administration - not the Obama Administration - since it occurred a full 11 days before Mr. Obama was inaugurated, and 26 days before Eric Holder became Attorney General of the United States.

Third, J. Christian Adams later identified Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, an Obama political appointee, as the individual who supposedly overruled a unanimous recommendation for continued criminal prosecution by Adams and other attorneys involved in the NBPP case.  The problem with that, however - in addition to the timeline for Mr. Obama's swearing-in - is that Mr. Perrelli wasn't confirmed until March, almost three months after the decision was made to downgrade the charges from criminal to civil status.

Fourth, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Julie Fernandes, who was also later alleged by Mr. Adams to be the Justice Department official who declared "Never bring another lawsuit against a black or other national minority... no matter what they do," did not begin working at the DOJ until June 2009, five months after the case was downgraded from criminal to civil, and one month after further civil prosecution was dropped.  Additionally, no one else has come forward to confirm the alleged mandate from Ms. Fernandes, and even if she actually made such an incredible statement, she wasn't in any position to influence the handling of the New Black Panther Party case.

Finally, the decision not to pursue further civil action was made in a transparent manner consistent with precedent:
... The allegation that would have supported pursuing a broader case was the idea that there was a nationwide effort to place New Black Panthers at polling stations for the purpose of suppressing white votes - the original complaint read that the NBPP "made statements and posted notice that over 300 members of the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense would be deployed at polling locations during voting on November 4, 2008, throughout the United States." The career attorneys recommended dismissing the case on the basis that there wasn't enough evidence to support that claim.

Not only did no voters come forward to say they had been intimidated by the NBPP that day, there were no further incidents on Election Day 2008 that would have suggested a large-scale conspiracy to intimidate white voters. According to a letter (PDF) sent to Rep. Lamar Smith by Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich, the NBPP "suspended" its Philadelphia political chapter over the incident and subsequently disavowed their actions, which seems like an odd thing to do for an organization that is supposedly disclosing its attempt to intimidate white voters in its publicly available materials.
In summary, then, the allegations made by the man accusing the Obama Administration and the Department of Justice of institutionalized racism, J. Christian Adams, are unsubstantiated by anyone else and are not just unsupported, but completely undermined by the public record.  The individuals Mr. Adams claims are behind this nefarious plot weren't working at the Justice Department when the events he describes took place; it was a Bush Administration team that downgraded the NBPP case from criminal to civil; and the subsequent decision not to pursue further civil charges - while approved by an Obama appointee - was made by career DOJ attorneys in a manner consistent with precedent.  In short, Mr. Adams' accusations are very much related to politicization of the Justice Department, but by the Bush White House, rather than President Obama. 

As I wrote in 2008, the consequences of political influence in the legal system are not to be taken lightly, and in this case they were made worse by the aid of complicit media outlets more interested in pushing a political agenda and ratings than in quality reporting.  But what is perhaps of even greater concern is what this whole indicident says about the state of both race relations and critical thinking among the public.  There exists in this country a substantial population which finds it plausible that, not only would a federal attorney publicly declare official policy to be, effectively, "open season on whitey," but that an entire bureaucracy of career lawyers would go along with such a mandate, and that it would be supported by a president whose own mother is white.  That fact,- while perhaps unsurprising in the current political climate - is deeply depressing.


No comments: