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U.S. Civil Rights Commission sidetracked by member's protest

By Paul Courson, CNN
  • The dispute centers on alleged voter intimidation in Philadelphia during the 2008 election
  • A leaked draft report is critical of the Justice Department
  • Commissioner Michael Yaki disagrees with the findings in the report

Washington (CNN) -- A member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission walked out of a meeting Friday saying he and two other panelists have been denied a chance to fully discuss whether the Obama administration has been race-neutral in an investigation of alleged voter intimidation.

Details in a draft report suggest the Obama administration downplayed the pursuit of a complaint from the 2008 election that members of the New Black Panther Party shouted racial and threatening remarks to people at a polling site in Philadelphia.

Video of the incident shows two people dressed in military attire, with one carrying a nightstick, the draft report says.

Friday's walkout at the Civil Rights Commission meeting by commissioner Michael Yaki deprived the panel a quorum, delaying a planned vote on the report on the conduct of the Justice Department in the matter.

"I do not feel it is my responsibility to make quorum for this kangaroo court, just so they can get their vote done," Yaki told reporters while standing in a hallway outside the meeting.

"They have done everything they can to make sure I cannot fully participate in the New Black Panther Party investigation," he said. Two other commissioners were absent from the meeting, which was called on short notice.

Yaki is convinced more is being made of the Philadelphia incident than can be supported by facts, including what he considers a lack of documentation that any voters were actually intimidated.

He referred to testimony in the report from what he called "the two star witnesses" at the Justice Department who described what they feel is an environment that prevents even-handed treatment of cases involving voting rights.

Yaki said those staffers, Christopher Coates and J. Christian Adams, failed to speak up during earlier allegations of bias during the Bush administration.

"Neither one of them saw fit to come forward to this commission or to Congress over even more egregious acts of voter intimidation" against Latinos and African-Americans, he said.

"I think the hypocrisy is quite evident to the American people and we're going to make that evident in our remarks," Yaki said.

Chairman Gerald Reynolds denied trying to block dissenting views on the report. Yaki "had about 20 steps to take to find his chair," Reynolds said, "There was no one preventing Commissioner Yaki or any other commissioner from taking part in the exchange that took place today."

A leaked early draft of the report says the Justice Department "took the unusual action of dismissing voter intimidation claims against defendants who did not contest their own liability," as well as scaling back proposed court action against a remaining defendant.

Reynolds confirmed the draft document is authentic, but said it is not the most recent summary that the commission would have voted on Friday had there been a quorum. He declined to immediately release the newest version, and would not describe what revisions may have been made.

He said the panel's technology expert has not been able to trace the source of the leak, which first appeared on the political website TPM Muckraker.

The early draft cites testimony from two Justice Department staffers who pursued legal action against the Black Panther defendants. In appearances last month before the Civil Rights Commission, the two men "gave numerous specific examples of open hostility and opposition to pursuing cases in which whites were the perceived victims and minorities the alleged wrongdoers."

Reynolds, the commission chairman, told reporters the Justice Department has not fully cooperated with his panel, dragging

out an issue that "should have been resolved in short order." Instead, Reynolds said, "the disputes over documents, the dispute over access to witnesses has prolonged this investigation. That is not our doing."

Another commission member, Todd Gaziano, agreed with Reynolds that Justice Department officials have not been helpful. "I continue to be more and more surprised at the Department of Justice, where I worked and have the highest regard," he said. "It isn't typical that they would instruct employees that they can't testify when they have a lawful obligation to testify."

Coates has said he was instructed by the Justice Department not to testify before the commission.

The commission will try again next Friday to reach a quorum and vote on the report. Procedurally, there would be 30 days for panel members to file comments, and another 30 days for the commissioners to reply to those comments before the findings are publicly released.