SEE NO EVIL
I was in Washington on election day helping to manage the information traffic coming into the Voting Section while nearly every other lawyer and section employee was scattered across the nation doing election coverage….
I received an early report about the Panther incident in Philadelphia. Voting Section chief Chris Coates had kept me at the Washington desk for just this sort of eventuality. Normally another lawyer would manage all the traffic on election day, but Coates didn’t trust him because there were already signs within the DOJ that some attorneys had used their position and power to aid the Obama campaign. Not only were key DOJ election officials large donors to Obama, but a wave of questionable inquiries and requests had come in over the previous few months from people such as Obama campaign lawyer Robert Bauer. Other Voting Section lawyers had spouses or friends deeply involved in the Obama campaign who referred matters to their DOJ contact, who then initiated a line of inquiry….
When the initial information reached the Voting Section about the Panther incident in Philadelphia, I related the report to Coates. He in turn contacted Deputy Chief Robert Popper, who was already managing election coverage in Philadelphia, and Popper quickly sent DOJ staff to investigate. In the meantime, in Washington we immediately encountered the first sign of resistance within the DOJ to pursuing the case.
A key component at the DOJ for monitoring federal elections is the Election Crimes Branch in the Public Integrity Section. This branch consisted almost entirely of one man, Craig Donsanto, who had been with the DOJ for years and was considered an expert in election issues. When the first reports about the Panthers filtered in, Donsanto almost smothered the investigation in the cradle. At 2:53 p.m. on election day, he emailed Coates,
A resident of that building who’s some kind of poll watcher, and another fellow who’s apparently not, were at one point standing outside the poll wearing attire that could be viewed as ideated to the Black Panthers. One of these guys also was carrying a stick of some sort. The GOP poll watcher at this poll called the police who came and removed the guy who was carrying the stick. The other fellow is apparently still standing outside the poll wearing a black beret.
Fox News has got hold of this incident (guess is that the GOP poll watcher who called the cops also called Fox News) and that network has been running broadcasts about this. NO VOTERS–OR POTENTIAL VOTERS– OR POLL WORKERS–HAVE COMPLAINED TO ANYONE ABOUT THIS. AUSA [redacted] advises that this seems to be entirely “media invented incident.” If we interview the GOP poll watcher (who’s at the moment the only “victim” identified here), he’ll go to Fox News and the entire incident will be further escalated.
Thus, AUSA [redacted] and I agreed that for the moment we (FEDS) will do NO INVESTIGATION here unless and until we receive a complaint from a voter.
Donsanto’s email is astonishing for several reasons. First, it contains a glaring error–neither of the Panthers was “a resident of that building.” The DOJ would later rely on Donsanto’s error to deflect congressional scrutiny before having to eat crow and correct the mistake. Second, Donsanto is clearly concerned with preventing Fox News from getting information about the event–this seems to outweigh his concern about discovering what actually happened. Third, Donsanto displays contempt toward Republican poll watchers, bracketing the word victim in quotes and explicitly referring to the victim’s political affiliation in his direction not to investigate the case. And finally, Donsanto dismisses the entire episode as a “media invented incident.” This was the same excuse used by 1960s-era southern segregationists to dismiss media reports of civil rights violations. It was most memorably claimed by Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey in the case of the three missing civil rights workers who later turned up dead.
Furthermore, Donsanto’s wording skillfully minimizes important facts–Panther uniforms become “attire that could be viewed as ideated to the Black Panthers,” and a nightstick becomes a mere “stick of some sort” that the Panther is “carrying” as opposed to the more accurate term “brandishing.” The email is a classic example of how Washington bureaucrats attempt to kill off inquiries they oppose.
Thankfully, Coates would have none of it. He shot back with an email exclaiming, “If standing in front of a polling place with a stick in Black Panther clothing and talking about how you are going to keep whites from voting (that is what the guy on tape complained of) does not violate the intimidation prohibition in 11(b), I don’t know what does.”
Two hours after sending his “NO INVESTIGATION” email, as the story spread beyond Fox News, Donsanto reversed course. He wrote in an email, “The man who was carrying the stick has been identified as a suspected member of the New Black Panthers Gang. Also, in the late afternoon of Election Day at least two individuals have come forward and claimed that they were threatened by this man when coming to vote. . . . As this incident is currently receiving fairly wide media attention (both Fox and CNN have picked it up), it is currently thought reasonable that further victims can be expected to self identify in the future. Interviews with victims will await end of the election.” Suddenly, Eeyore had become Tigger.
Note that Donsanto unequivocally states that “at least two individuals” had claimed they were threatened by the Panthers. For weeks, the Voting Section sought the identities of these voters from Donsanto, but he never revealed them. His reticence was a big help to those opposed to pursuing the Panther case, who continually argued that no voters had been intimidated. A 2011 report from the DOJ Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) on the Panther case never clarifies Donsanto’s claim to know of at least two voters who were intimidated. In a footnote, the report states, “Donsanto retired from the Department in early 2010 for health reasons, and OPR was unable to interview him.” The note leaves several questions unanswered: Why didn’t OPR ever interview Donsanto, even when the investigation was ongoing and he still worked at the DOJ? Why couldn’t they interview him then, or even after he retired? Did he refuse to be interviewed?
Regardless of the answers, we would later discover that Donsanto’s actions marked the beginning of a long campaign of political resistance to the Panther lawsuit that ultimately resulted in the dismissal of most of the case–after we had effectively won it.
J. Christian Adams is a former Department of Justice attorney. Excerpt adapted from his new book Injustice: Exposing the Racial Agenda of the Obama Justice Department (Regnery, 2011). Reprinted with permission by Regnery Publishing, Inc.