Federal Court: DOJ Official May Have Lied About the New Black Panther Case

In a little noted decision on July 23, a federal district court judge concluded that internal DOJ documents about the New Black Panther Party voter intimidation case “contradict Assistant Attorney General [Thomas] Perez’s testimony that political leadership was not involved in” the decision to dismiss the case.

In other words, the sworn testimony of Perez, the Obama political appointee who heads the Civil Rights Division, before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights was apparently false.

The decision in Judicial Watch v. U.S. Department of Justice by Judge Reggie Walton was in a case filed by Judicial Watch after the Civil Rights Division refused to turn over documents about the NBPP case requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Walton is the same federal judge who presided over the prosecution of Scooter Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff.

As Judge Walton outlined, Judicial Watch’s FOIA request “sought documents relating to the DOJ’s decision to dismiss civil claims in the New Black Panther Party case.” Walton awarded Judicial Watch a small amount of attorneys’ fees and costs, having concluded that the Judicial Watch lawsuit “was the catalyst for the DOJ’s release of records.”

According to the court, the DOJ documents, including emails from former Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli (who was the number-two official at DOJ) and former Democratic election lawyer and Deputy Associate Attorney General Sam Hirsch, “revealed that political appointees within DOJ were conferring about the status and resolution of the New Black Panther Party case in the days preceding the DOJ’s dismissal of claims.”

This included emails from Perrelli to lower-level DOJ attorneys on May 14 and 15, 2009, the day before and the very day the case was dismissed against three of the defendants on May 15. As Judge Walton concluded in discussing the importance of the Judicial Watch lawsuit, “[s]urely the public has an interest in documents that cast doubt on the accuracy of government officials’ representations regarding the possible politicization of agency decisionmaking.”

Neither Perrelli nor Hirsch has ever answered any questions about why top officials in the Justice Department were so interested in one of the many cases handled by the Civil Rights Division or what actions or instructions they communicated. And they have never said who else they discussed the case with above them, either in the Office of the Attorney General or in the White House. We don’t know the actual content of many of these emails because the court upheld the exemption from disclosure claimed by DOJ for many of these documents under a FOIA rule that protects certain legally privileged documents.

But the court also said that DOJ had failed “to show that its withholding of some documents from Judicial Watch prior to the filing of this lawsuit was legally correct or had a reasonable basis in law.” That is no surprise. Far too many of the actions of this Justice Department, particularly the Civil Rights Division, have not been legally correct or had a reasonable basis in law. And in this case, DOJ tried to avoid releasing documents as mandated by FOIA that it found politically embarrassing since there was no justifiable legal reason for dismissing an open-and-shut case of voter intimidation that had already been won by default.