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Former Justice attorney to testify on New Black Panther Party decision

By Mike M. Ahlers, CNN
  • The Justice Department had banned Christopher Coates from testifying
  • Another former attorney says he expects Coates to back up his testimony
  • He said politics suppressed a case against the New Black Panthers

Washington (CNN) -- A former Justice Department attorney who testified the department dropped charges of voter intimidation against the New Black Panther Party for political reasons says he expects his former boss to corroborate his claim in a hearing Friday.

The boss, Christopher Coates, surprised the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights this week when he agreed to testify before it. Previously, the Justice Department prevented Coates from complying with a subpoena to testify before the commission, a commission spokeswoman said.

In a letter to the commission, which was not written on Justice Department stationary, Coates offered to testify, but did not say whether his testimony was sanctioned by the department. Nor did he indicate what he would say.

But former Justice Department attorney J. Christian Adams said he expects Coates to confirm what Adams testified in July.

Adams told CNN that Coates will testify "that there's an open and pervasive hostility towards race-neutral enforcement of the voting rights laws, and that there were explicit instructions that certain laws are not going to be enforced."

Coates further will testify that the case against the New Black Panther Party "was dismissed because of hostility towards race-neutral enforcement of the law, and that it was a solid case," Adams said.

Asked if he had talked to Coates about his planned testimony, Adams declined comment.

The voting rights case goes back to November 4, 2008, when two members of the New Black Panther Party stood outside a polling station in Philadelphia wearing paramilitary style uniforms and black combat boots. One of the individuals carried a nightstick. The Black Panthers yelled at some white voters in an intimidating manner, witnesses have told the commission.

No voters filed complaints about the incident. But some witnesses say they saw voters turn away from the polls, apparently in response to the two members of the New Black Panther Party.

In the waning days of the Bush administration, the Justice Department filed a civil complaint against the men and their organization. Most of the charges were dropped by the Obama Justice Department, which kept only a charge against the man holding the nightstick.

The issue has been a contentious matter before the Civil Rights Commission. One hearing this summer erupted in shouting between commission members, with conservative members accusing the Justice Department of "stonewalling" the commission's investigation into the dismissed charges, and a liberal member, in turn, calling those complaints the "last gasps of a conservative majority of this commission."

Adams, testifying in July, said the Justice Department dropped the New Black Panther Party case because of an improper consideration of race.

"I was told by Voting Section management that cases are not going to be brought against black defendants for the benefit of white victims, that if somebody wanted to bring these cases it was up to the U.S. attorney, but the Civil Rights Division wasn't going to be bringing it," Adams testified.

Adams said another Justice Department attorney -- Coates, former head of the Voting Section -- could corroborate his testimony.

"If Mr. Coates were allowed to testify and tell the truth, then you would hear that these instructions were given," Adams testified.

But the Justice Department refused to allow Coates to testify, the commission said, instead sending Thomas Perez, head of the department's Civil Rights Division. Perez testified the Civil Rights Division and Voting Section operate in a color-blind manner, and that other factors -- including the evidence and resources -- influence departmental decisions.

"The department has responded to interrogatories and document requests it has received and has provided more than 4,000 pages of documents," Perez testified in May. He said the department had tried to be responsive while protecting "well-established and long-standing confidentiality interests" integral to its responsibilities.

In a July letter to the commission, Perez again said the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division is "firmly committed to the evenhanded application of the law, without regard to the race of the victims or perpetrators." He said he does not believe Coates "is the appropriate witness to testify regarding current Division policies."

One commission member, Michael Yaki, a Democrat, told CNN Thursday he is not aware of what Coates will say.

"Obviously he has some information that he believes is relevant to this investigation," Yaki said. "I don't know what he will be able to testify on with regards to the deliberative process at Justice because that's privileged."

A request for information from the Justice Department about whether Coates has permission to testify was not immediately answered.