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Former Justice official says ‘race-neutral’ voting enforcement discouraged

A former Justice Department official on Friday accused his superiors of discouraging “race-neutral” voting enforcement and gutting a controversial 2008 voter intimidation case in which suspects were part of an African American militant group accused of violating the rights of white voters.

Over the objections of Justice Departments officials, former Voting Chief Christopher Coates testified before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Coates said that the Obama administration discouraged pursuing minority perpetrators and instead focused on prosecuting white voters accused of racially motivated acts.

“The election of President Obama brought to positions of influence and power within the [Civil Rights Division] many of the very people who had demonstrated hostility to the concept of equal enforcement of the [Voting Rights Act],” Coates said. Coates recently transferred to a position in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Carolina.

The Justice Department denies Coates’ accusations.

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“The Department makes enforcement decisions based on the merits, not the race, gender or ethnicity of any party involved,” Tracy Schmaler, a Justice Department spokesperson, said in a statement. “We are committed to comprehensive and vigorous enforcement of the federal laws that prohibit voter intimidation.”

The hearing at the Republican-controlled Civil Rights Commission focused on whether tensions within Justice caused the mishandling of a lawsuit against the New Black Panther Party, a small black supremacist organization. The suit hinged on two members of the group who dressed in military attire and stood outside a polling place in Philadelphia on Election Day 2008. One man was carrying a nightstick.

The department filed the civil suit during the Bush administration, accusing the men of attempting to intimidate white voters — even though the polling place was in a primarily African American neighborhood. Under the Obama administration, the department dropped some of the proceedings against the men and the New Black Panther Party.

Prior to a 2005 case in Mississippi, the department had never filed a case in which white voters were targeted by minority groups, Coates told the commission.

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Coates said department officials told him that many civil rights groups were opposed to race-neutral enforcement. Coates said the groups were acting as “special interest lobbies for racial and ethnic minorities.”

Coates was promoted to voting chief during the end of the Bush administration. He said he felt “closely supervised” by his superiors after the beginning of the Obama administration.

While conducting interviews with applicants, Coates would if they felt comfortable prosecuting members of a minority for racially motivated acts, all applicants said yes. In 2009 he was instructed to stop asking the question.

“What I am pointing out is that I believe that some minorities are just as likely to resort to lawlessness in the voting area as are some whites,” Coates said.

xcxjsteffen@tribune.com


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