It was a time of suspicion, with ethnic tension so taut that police feared violence and the clergy prayed for peace. It was in that climate of mistrust, just a year ago this weekend, that an FBI agent was sent to the Huntington Beach home of Barbara A. Coe.
The agent’s job that Saturday afternoon, just three days before California voters would decide whether to cut public benefits to illegal immigrants, was to find out whether Coe was planning to violate the voting rights of minorities.
Coe, a former police department secretary and grass-roots organizer for Proposition 187, planned to post “Only citizens can vote” flyers at Election Day polling places to keep non-citizens from trying to “stuff” ballot boxes against the measure.
But in Orange County, where Republicans paid $400,000 to settle a lawsuit for posting guards at minority polling places in 1988, Latino activists feared this would be another case of voter intimidation and asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate Coe’s plans.
A year later, the FBI’s questioning of Coe is but one example some conservative Republicans are using to show that “Big Brother” is trampling on the rights of law-abiding citizens.
Beyond the widely publicized probes into the deadly confrontations between law enforcers and lawbreakers at Ruby Ridge, Ida., and Waco, Tex., some GOP House members are holding up a magnifying glass to more obscure incidents--such as the questioning of Coe--in an attempt to limit the investigative powers of federal agencies.
But as was shown during a recent congressional hearing where Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) and other Republicans vented their frustrations with the federal government, no major cutbacks in authority are likely to occur because the very practices they complained about have been used in the past by conservatives and liberals alike as part of political gamesmanship.
The interrogation of Coe and others came up recently during a hearing before the House Constitution subcommittee on the subpoena powers of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. This was the second time the Coe incident had been brought up before a congressional panel.
Earlier this year, F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, publicly asked the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division why Coe had been asked about her campaign tactics. (The Justice Department has acknowledged interviewing Coe at length and asking questions such as: how she knew non-citizens planned to vote, how she would determine if in fact they were voting, and if the Republican Party or other defendants from the 1988 case would be participating in her poll monitoring.)
In reopening the Coe case, Rohrabacher sought in one fell swoop to indict the U.S. Justice Department, Housing and Urban Development Department, the Internal Revenue Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the “liberals in the Clinton Administration.”
All of them, Rohrabacher contended, had misused their federal authority “to intimidate and harass individuals whose beliefs they do not agree with.”
“Mrs. Coe strongly feels that incident was nothing less than an attempt by the federal government to abridge her personal freedom of expression,” Rohrabacher told the House Constitution subcommittee. “Let’s call it intimidation. That’s exactly what it was.”
He also referred to HUD’s use of the Fair Housing Act last year to investigate three protesters opposed to the development of a homeless shelter in their Berkeley neighborhood.
In the case of the Civil Rights Commission, which was castigated for issuing subpoenas to delve into the activities of an anti-illegal immigration campaign committee in Florida, Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) compared the commission’s alleged abuse of its subpoena authority to McCarthyism. It was a reference to the propaganda campaign by the notorious Wisconsin senator who tried to score political points during the 1950s by falsely accusing and investigating prominent citizens of being members of the Communist Party.
Both Rohrabacher and Foley argued that the commission’s subpoena powers should be stripped away.
But as was shown during the unwieldy, quarrelsome debate that marked this hearing, Republican and Democrats alike have used congressional inquiries and agency probes to further their political causes.
Seated at the witness table between Rohrabacher and Foley was Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, a New York Democrat, who firmly threw back at Republicans the McCarthyism charge.
Slaughter reminded the panel of the recent Republican-backed effort to ask intrusive questions--without subpoenas--of non-conservative organizations that receive federal grants. When witnesses did not respond, she added, they were accused of pleading the “Fifth Amendment,” a constitutional right invoked by witnesses who do not want to incriminate themselves.
“Other than subpoena power, what’s the difference?” Slaughter asked in making her point that intimidation for political purposes crosses party lines.
So, while Democrats warily eye the intentions of Republicans such as Rohrabacher, and Republicans are suspicious of Clinton Administration agency probes, few expect the subpoena powers or other investigative rights of agencies to be curtailed.
For all the heated debate and rhetoric, both sides concede the cold reality that investigative powers of federal agencies are an effective political tool.
“None of that is going to come to anything,” said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), a member of the Constitution subcommittee that listened to the charges.
Yes, HUD may have overstepped its authority; and sure, the Civil Rights Commission abused its power when it subpoenaed campaign records of the Florida anti-illegal immigration committee, Frank conceded after the hearing. But these actions were “not part of a liberal plot” against conservatives, he added.
On the other side, Rep. Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.), the conservative committee chairman, said in an interview that while “there are differences among Republicans” about alleged abuse of power by federal agencies, he does not see a “pattern of abuse” at the Civil Rights Commission, and is not proposing that the commission’s subpoena powers be diminished.
Just as Frank contended the Democratic Administration is not engaging in witch hunts against conservatives, Canady also insisted his committee hearing was not part of a Republican effort to question those who question their conservative allies.
Republican and Democratic Administrations have overstepped their authority in the past, and calling attention to an incident can sometimes provide the remedy, Canady and Frank agreed.
“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” Canady said.
Frank, meanwhile, noted that Rohrabacher’s attention to the Coe case could end up reaffirming the need for the Justice Department’s voting rights division.
Coe might not have been questioned, Frank said, had there not been “this pattern where Republicans were going after Hispanic and black voters and trying to intimidate them.”
He was referring to the 1988 incident in Orange County, which resulted in the Republican Party paying a settlement to the Democrats and Latino activists.
Based on the FBI’s interrogation of Coe, the Justice Department decided not to dispatch federal marshals to Orange County on Election Day, and the probe was dropped. Coe never posted any flyers at polling places, and no major problems were reported on Election Day.
But as the debate continues over whether the federal government is intruding in the private lives individuals, Frank said members of Congress should ask themselves one question: “Are you really against invasions of privacy or are you against what people are doing?”