“A true member of the team”: Coates' testimony used to revive phony DOJ scandal

Right-wing media are citing the testimony of Justice Department attorney Christopher Coates before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to revive the phony New Black Panther Party scandal. But Coates reportedly became “a true member of the team” in the highly politicized Bush DOJ.

Right-wing media hype Coates' Civil Rights Commission testimony as a “bombshell”

Hans von Spakovsky: Coates testimony is a “bombshell.” In a September 22 Pajamas Media blog post, Bush DOJ official Hans von Spakovsky called Coates' decision to testify before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights a “bombshell” that was “likely to be incredibly damaging to DOJ leadership and the Obama administration.” [Pajamas Media, 9/22/10]

Wash. Times: “Justice's Panther pursuer to testify on case.” In a Washington Times article headlined “Justice's Panther pursuer to testify on case,” Jerry Seper wrote:

The Justice Department section chief who recommended going forward on a civil complaint against members of the New Black Panther Party, and then was removed from his post and transferred to South Carolina, will testify on the case Friday before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Commission officials confirmed Wednesday that Christopher Coates, who signed off on the federal-court complaint saying three party members had disrupted a Philadelphia polling place in the 2008 elections, had agreed in a hand-delivered letter to testify when the panel reconvenes its hearing on the case.

In the letter, Mr. Coates said he wanted to attend the meeting “to present testimony to comply with the outstanding subpoena served on me as part of your statutory investigation.”

In December, the Justice Department had told the attorneys who filed the complaint not to cooperate in the commission's investigation. Joseph H. Hunt, director of the Justice Department's Federal Programs Branch, had ordered the lawyers' silence, saying there were “well-established” and “lawful” department guidelines prohibiting them from cooperating with the commission.

Mr. Hunt said at the time that the Civil Rights Commission “possesses no authority to initiate criminal prosecution of anyone” and could only make referrals to the Justice Department recommending that a criminal case be opened. He said the commission did not have the authority to enforce subpoenas. [The Washington Times, 9/22/10]

Coates reportedly became “a true member of the team” during the Bush administration

Coates reportedly filed a “reverse-discrimination” complaint against DOJ and became “more conservative” after not being promoted. A 2007 McClatchy Newspapers article connected Coates to Bradley Schlozman and the Bush-era politicization of the Justice Department. McClatchy reported that Schlozman attempted to refute the notion that the DOJ had used political ideology in its personnel practices in part by citing “the promotion of Chris Coates, a former ACLU voting counsel, to serve as top deputy chief of the voting section.” McClatchy went on to report that Joseph Rich, then head of the DOJ's voting rights section, and other DOJ lawyers interviewed said that Coates “seemed to grow more conservative after his superiors passed him over for a promotion in favor of an African-American woman, and he filed a reverse-discrimination suit.” [McClatchy Newspapers, 5/6/07]

Schlozman reportedly identified Coates as a “true member of the team.” A July 2008 report from the Department of Justice Inspector General's Office and the Office of Professional Responsibility concluded that Schlozman improperly considered ideology when making personnel decisions and cited numerous emails in which Schlozman discussed adding conservative members to “the team.” In a January 8, 2010, American Prospect article, Adam Serwer reported that “several current and former Justice Department officials” identified Coates as the attorney Schlozman called “a very different man” from his days of working for the American Civil Liberties Union and “a true member of the team” while recommending him for a job:

At first glance, Coates' extensive experience with voting rights -- he first worked for the American Civil Liberties Union and later the Justice Department -- made him look like just another career attorney. But Coates' current and former colleagues at the Justice Department say Coates underwent an ideological conversion shortly after a black lawyer in the Voting Rights Section, Gilda Daniels, was promoted to deputy section chief over him in July of 2000. Outraged, Coates filed a complaint alleging he was passed up for the job because he is white. The matter was settled internally.

“He thought he should have been hired instead of her,” said one former official in the Voting Section. “That had an impact on his views ... he became more conservative over time.”

Coates' star rose during the Bush administration, during which he was promoted to principal deputy section chief. While not mentioned by name, Coates has been identified by several current and former Justice Department officials as the anonymous Voting Section lawyer, referred to in the joint Inspector General/Office of Professional Responsibility report, that Schlozman recommended for an immigration judge position. Immigration judges have jurisdiction over whether or not foreign nationals are deported. In his letter to Monica Goodling, a former senior counsel to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales who was implicated in the scandal involving politicized hiring, Schlozman wrote of Coates:

Don't be dissuaded by his ACLU work on voting matters from years ago. This is a very different man, and particularly on immigration issues, he is a true member of the team. [The American Prospect, 1/8/10]

Coates has donated to conservative candidates -- including President Bush and former Sen. George Allen. In 2004, Coates donated $250 to the Bush reelection campaign. In 2006, Coates donated $350 to then Sen. George Allen (R-VA).

Schlozman's politicization wrought havoc on Civil Rights Division

DOJ IG “found that Schlozman considered political and ideological affiliations when hiring and taking other personnel actions relating to career attorneys, in violation of Department policy and federal law.” The July 2008 report from the IG's office and the OPR concluded that Schlozman “considered political and ideological affiliations when hiring and taking other personnel actions relating to career attorneys in violation of Department policy and federal law.” The report concluded:

The evidence in our investigation showed that Schlozman, first as a Deputy Assistant Attorney General and subsequently as Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General and Acting Assistant Attorney General, considered political and ideological affiliations in hiring career attorneys and in other personnel actions affecting career attorneys in the Civil Rights Division. In doing so, he violated federal law -- the Civil Service Reform Act -- and Department policy that prohibit discrimination in federal employment based on political and ideological affiliations, and committed misconduct. The evidence also showed that Division managers failed to exercise sufficient oversight to ensure that Schlozman did not engage in inappropriate hiring and personnel practices. Moreover, Schlozman made false statements about whether he considered political and ideological affiliations when he gave sworn testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee and in his written responses to supplemental questions from the Committee.

Schlozman is said to have picked attorneys who “lacked relevant experience” and “rarely expressed any interest in civil rights enforcement.” The IG/OPR report stated that Special Litigation Section Chief Shanetta Cutlar “said that the applicants whose résumés she reviewed after they had been culled from the applicant pool by Schlozman or others in the front office typically reflected membership in conservative organizations. She also said the most striking thing she noticed about the résumés was that the applicants generally lacked relevant experience. She said Schlozman minimized the importance of prior civil rights or human rights work experience.” In addition, the report states:

Former Criminal Section Chief [Albert] Moskowitz also said the candidates for career positions chosen by Schlozman had conservative political or ideological affiliations and rarely had any civil rights background, rarely expressed any interest in civil rights enforcement, and had very little or no federal criminal experience.

Schlozman testified that he “probably ha[d]” boasted about hiring Republicans or conservatives. From a June 5, 2007, Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on politicized hiring and firing in the DOJ (from the Nexis database):

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: Did you ever boast to anyone that you hired a certain number of Republicans or conservatives for any division or section at the Justice Department?

MR. SCHLOZMAN: I mean, I probably have made statements like that.

In addition, the IG/OPR report cited a January 2004 email in which Schlozman wrote to an attorney he had hired: “Just between you and me, we hired another member of 'the team' yesterday. And still another ideological comrade will be starting in one month. So we are making progress.”

IG/OPR documented Schlozman discussing the removal of “disloyal” “liberals” and hiring of conservative “real Americans.” The same report outlined statements from Justice Department officials who said that Schlozman attempted to remove Democrats and liberals and hire “real Americans” or “right-thinking Americans,” which the report determined to mean conservatives. From the report:

Several attorneys in the Division also told us that Schlozman was open about his disdain for and lack of trust in the attorney staff of the Division. Appellate Section Chief Diana Flynn told us that in conversations with her, Schlozman alternately referred to the Appellate Section lawyers hired during prior administrations as “Democrats” and “liberals,” and said they were “disloyal,” could not be trusted, and were not “on the team.” Flynn said Schlozman pledged to move as many of them out of the Division as he could to make room for the “real Americans” and “right-thinking Americans” he wanted to hire.

Accounts from numerous other Division employees and officials, including former AAG Wan Kim and Section Chiefs Cutlar and Flynn, as well as the context of Schlozman's e-mails, indicate that his use of terms such as “real American,” “right-thinking American,” being “on the team,” and similar terms were Schlozman's way of referring to politically conservative applicants and attorneys. For example, an e-mail dated July 17, 2006, from Schlozman to Monica Goodling, who at the time was Senior Counsel to the Attorney General and White House Liaison, sheds light on the meaning of Schlozman's terms. In that e-mail, Schlozman recommended a friend who had interviewed with Goodling for a political position. Schlozman wrote, “I can assure you that [the applicant] is a good American. [The applicant] and Sheldon Bradshaw and I (and [one] other person) made up a four-member Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy at my former law firm.” In another e-mail sent to Goodling on December 4, 2006, in which Schlozman recommended a different friend for an Immigration Judge position, Schlozman wrote, "[D]on't be dissuaded by his ACLU work on voting matters from years ago. This is a very different man, and particularly on immigration issues, he is a true member of the team."

A May 9, 2003, e-mail provides additional evidence of the meaning of Schlozman's phrases. Luis Reyes, then Counsel to the AAG for the Civil Division, sent an e-mail to Schlozman in connection with a legal matter, endorsing an attorney in the Department's Office of Legal Policy as a “right thinking american [sic] to say the least.” In an e-mail response, Schlozman wrote that he “just spoke with [the attorney] to verify his political leanings and it is clear he is a member of the team.”

IG/OPR: Schlozman cut section managers out of the hiring process. As explained in the IG/OPR report, a memorandum on hiring procedures sent out by Ralph F. Boyd Jr., then the Civil Rights Division assistant attorney general, indicated that section chiefs were supposed to interview and provide hiring recommendations. However, the report states that Schlozman “prevented many career section chiefs from reviewing résumés of the complete applicant pool, and he only provided to them résumés of applicants he interviewed. Five of the six section chiefs whom Schlozman supervised while [deputy assistant attorneys general], from May 2003 to June 2005, told us that Schlozman further minimized their roles in the hiring process by providing little advance notice of applicant interviews, discouraging their asking questions during the interviews, and ignoring their assessments and recommendations regarding attorney applicants.” In sections of the Civil Rights Division where Schlozman was not responsible for hiring, by contrast, "[c]areer section managers and attorneys in these sections had greater roles in the process for hiring experienced attorneys."

Former DOJ official testified that “damage” done to Civil Rights Division by Bush administration hiring practices is “deep and will take time to overcome.” Joseph D. Rich, chief of the Civil Rights Division's Voting Section from 1999-2005 and an employee of the Civil Rights Division for 37 years, testified that the appearance of “a conscious effort to remake the Division's career staff” during the Bush administration “resulted in an alarming exodus of career attorneys -- the longtime backbone of the Division that had historically maintained the institutional knowledge of how to enforce our civil rights laws tracing back to the passage of our modern civil rights statutes.” From Rich's March 22, 2007, testimony before the House Judiciary Committee:

During the Bush Administration, there has been an unprecedented effort to change the make-up of the career staff at the Civil Rights Division. This has resulted in a major loss of career personnel with many years of experience in civil rights enforcement and in the invaluable institutional memory that had always been maintained in the Division until now -- in both Republican and Democratic administrations. Replacement of this staff through a new hiring process resulted in the perception and reality of politicization of the Division, and high profile decisions in voting matters have added significantly to this. The overall impact has been a loss of public confidence in the fair and even-handed enforcement of civil rights laws by the Department of Justice.

Phony “scandal” does not stand up to the evidence

Right-wing activists and Fox News promoted unsubstantiated allegations based on hearsay. Right-wing media figures -- led by GOP activist J. Christian Adams -- have relied on distorted evidence and hearsay to accuse the Obama Justice Department of racially charged “corruption” based on the decision not to pursue additional charges against members of the New Black Panther Party accused of intimidating voters outside a Philadelphia polling center in 2008, claiming that the decision was based on “hostility in the voting rights section to bringing cases on behalf of white victims for the benefit of national racial minorities.” Fox News has discussed the phony scandal during more than 100 segments since June 30.

Unsubstantiated allegations against DOJ don't stand up to facts. Adams has acknowledged lacking firsthand knowledge of the events he has cited to support his claims, and the suggestion that the Civil Rights Division in the Obama DOJ is hostile to “bringing cases on behalf of white victims for the benefit of national racial minorities” falls apart given the fact that the Obama DOJ obtained judgment against one defendant in the New Black Panthers case and requested additional judgment against black leaders in Mississippi who were found to have discriminated against white voters.

Conservative Civil Rights Commission vice chair ridiculed commission's investigation. A July 16 Politico article reported that Abigail Thernstrom, a Republican who serves as vice chair of the Civil Rights Commission and who is an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said, “This doesn't have to do with the Black Panthers, this has to do with their fantasies about how they could use this issue to topple the [Obama] administration.” Politico also quoted Thernstrom saying, “My fellow conservatives on the commission had this wild notion they could bring Eric Holder down and really damage the president.”