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House Panel Launches Probe: Did FBI Ignore Threats To Jail Black Voters?

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Since the resignations of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and others involved in the U.S. Attorneys and Civil Rights Division scandals, you might expect that the Justice Department would come clean and show a new commitment to voting rights.

Think again. At recent hearings before a House Judiciary subcommittee, new revelations emerged about how the Justice Department failed to investigate illegal mailers sent to African-Americans in Dallas threatening criminal punishment if they registered to vote through a community reform group called ACORN.

The House Judiciary Committee is launching a preliminary inquiry into the questionable way that the FBI office in Dallas -- after consulting with the Justice Department -- decided not to investigate the intimidating flier targeting Democratic-leaning blacks in a 2006 legislative race, purportedly because no federal laws were violated.

"That's nonsense," says Gerry Hebert, director of the reform group Campaign Legal Center and a former 21-year veteran of the Civil Rights Division. "That intimidation is a violation of the Voting Rights Act," he notes, which authorizes both civil and criminal penalties for any threats that aim to deter voting.

Hebert testified about the Dallas incident to challenge claims by the Justice Department's top civil rights official at February's subcommittee hearing that the agency was taking vigorous legal action to protect minority voting rights.

Under intense grilling by skeptical Democrats about DOJ's alleged vote-suppressing activities, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Asheesh Agarwal told the panel, "The department takes very seriously any allegations that voters are being discriminated on the basis of their race. And we have an outstanding record of bringing lawsuits when necessary to protect the rights of minority voters."

Hebert countered by revealing the apparent Dallas voting rights violations. His voice rising, he declared, "Black voters in Dallas, Texas in 2006, after Mr. Agerwal joined the Justice Department, received a letter that said if you were registered by ACORN, they're a fraudulent organization, and if you try to vote, you'll be prosecuted and arrested at the polls." He testified that he had alerted the Justice Department, but no action was taken. Project Vote, ACORN's partner in managing voting registration drives, also contacted the Dallas FBI, which declined to investigate the intimidating mailers sent to thousands of African-Americans.

The FBI belatedly responded to Project Vote in late December 2006, asserting that "no factual predication of voter intimidation was established." The FBI's decision not to investigate, critics say, is the latest sign that politicization appears to have compromised the nominally non-partisan law enforcement agency.

Moreover, the Justice Department's response was part of a striking pattern of indifference to alleged intimidation violations. In fact, The Huffington Post has learned, President Bush's Justice Department hasn't brought a single prosecution or lawsuit in more than seven years on behalf of any African-American voters who faced direct voter intimidation threats and challenges -- despite receiving, by some estimates, roughly 12,000 criminal civil rights complaints of all kinds annually.

"The Justice Department hasn't handled these cases because they've had an unreasonable focus on voter fraud. They're more interested in disenfranchising voters," observes Tanya Clay House, the Public Policy Director of People for the American Way. (The Justice Department, and the local and national FBI, declined to answer questions about the Dallas incident and the broader lack of prosecutions aimed at voter intimidation.)

Indeed, part of what amounts to a wide-ranging GOP disenfranchisement strategy is attacking the non-partisan low-income advocacy group ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now). The organization has been a favorite target of Republicans promoting the myth of widespread voter fraud because of its success in registering Democratic-leaning minority voters since 2004, according to reports by McClatchy Newspapers, The American Prospect, and other outlets. The drumbeat of voter-fraud hype is then used to justify a host of GOP-backed laws and policies, from restrictive photo ID voting laws to the Justice Department' promotion of mass purges of registered voters. Yet voter fraud, in fact, is so rare that even an intensive, four-year anti-fraud initiative by the Justice Department couldn't even find one person in the country to charge with impersonating another voter -- out of nearly 215 million votes cast in federal elections.

The Dallas incident, it turns out, perfectly symbolizes the no-holds-barred Republican politics of voter fraud. The intimidating flier was part of a brazen vote-suppression and smear campaign designed to undermine a Democratic candidate, Harriet Miller, in a tight local race in 2006 to challenge Texas House Rep. Tony Goolsby in a racially mixed North Dallas district.

The frightening and deceptive mailer, highlighted with ACORN's trademark red and black colors, was sent to thousands of black residents a few days before the election: "Beware: A national political group suspected of voter fraud [i.e., ACORN] is currently working in your neighborhood to bring people to the polls on election day...Don't be a victim of voter fraud -- it could result in jail time for you."

The flier appeared to have its intended effect of intimidating some black voters. Lawrence Jones, a 63-year-old retiree and an active ACORN member, vividly recalls how it affected registered voters and other ACORN members. "They were dumbfounded and shocked," he says. It caused some members to doubt the group's integrity, while other residents, he says, "just feared to vote." He adds, "A lot of people said they don't think ACORN is powerful enough to protect them -- I'm not going to fool with the federal government."

That anonymous mailer followed a spate of public attacks, ads, and mailers by the Goolsby campaign -- and even a letter to the local district attorney by the county Republican chairman -- all accusing Miller of engaging in voter fraud during her first campaign against Goolsby in 2004. The Republican smears, now the subject of a pending defamation lawsuit aimed at Goolsby and other local Republicans, also claimed she had illegally "retained the services of ACORN," while tarring the organization with flimsy claims that it deliberately engaged in voter fraud.

The district attorney never responded to the Dallas GOP's allegations, but the local CBS affiliate, CBS 11 News, jumped on the story to ballyhoo the bogus charges filed by Republican County Chairman Kenn George with the D.A.

The real fraud involved George's inflammatory letter to the prosecutor, which blatantly misrepresented election returns from 2004 in order to file the false voter fraud complaint against Miller. The letter claimed that as a Democrat running for a state House seat, she suspiciously won more votes than the Democratic candidate for Congress in black districts, when, in fact, there was no Democratic congressional candidate opposing the Republican, just an obscure independent.

"Republicans then used the [CBS] news coverage as a prop for mail to Anglo voters alleging Harriet Miller was engaged in a criminal enterprise," says Matt Engle, director of the pro-Democratic legal advocacy group, the Lone Star Project, which supports Miller's lawsuit against local Republicans. "Another part of the Republican effort was sending the illegal fliers to black neighborhoods to convince African-American voters not to show up."

After the CBS 11 News story ran, the Republicans' specious claims of voter fraud became the basis of at least four pieces of direct mail and one doorhanger charging that Miller was "under investigation" for voter fraud. The mailers cited as a source the same CBS story that Kenn George himself had generated with his fake voter fraud claim to the D.A. All this, in turn, was followed by the menacing flier warning black voters who registered with ACORN that they'd be arrested at the polls.

"I was horrified," Miller says of the assorted attacked aimed at her and her potential black supporters. "I think the false allegations that were made about me concerning voter fraud had an impact when combined with the suppression of the vote. It's not a surprise that I lost." Despite spending five times as much in her 2006 campaign as in 2004, she lost by roughly the same amount as in her first race: a mere 1,553 votes short of unseating Goolsby.

None of the Republicans or their attorneys, including Goolsby and George, named in Miller's defamation lawsuit responded to requests for comment on her legal claims, although they denied her allegations in papers filed in response to her lawsuit. But the president of Goolsby's political consulting company, Allyn and Company, denied it had any role in printing or distributing the intimidation fliers targeting black voters (which isn't an issue in the lawsuit). "The only work we did was directly for the Goolsby campaign," says Mari Woodlies.

Harriet Miller and her district's black voters, though, are hardly the only people victimized by false voter fraud claims and intimidation schemes. For instance, as chronicled by leading civil rights groups in an "Election Protection" coalition, such threatening incidents include black-shirted, gun-toting thugs thwarting Latino voters in Tucson, Arizona in 2006, and fliers from a fake "Milwaukee Black Voters League" distributed during the 2004 election in Milwaukee inner-city neighborhoods warning people that if anyone in their family had been convicted of a crime, "you can get ten years in prison" if you dared to vote. Unfortunately, such cases don't seem to have been deemed worthy of serious investigation by DOJ, and certainly no prosecutions or lawsuits have resulted.

Even so, a Justice Department spokesman responded to questions about such failures by stating, "The Department is taking affirmative steps to ensure equal access to the polls for all citizens," citing in part the deployment of hundreds of federal election monitors in 2004 and 2006. But some critics so distrust the politicized Justice Department they see those monitors as reinforcing intimidation, rather than preventing it.

And now Justice itself is facing tough new monitoring from congressional oversight committees, including the House Judiciary Committee. "Protecting the voting rights of every citizen is a top priority for [House Judiciary chairman John Conyers (D-MI)]; members have serious concerns about DOJ's enforcement record and will be looking into the Dallas issue," a committee staffer told The Huffington Post. Elections have consequences, as Sen. Barbara Boxer famously said at a hearing last year, and one of them is that Conyer's committee will be asking asking Asheesh Agarwal to explain why nothing was done about the voter intimidation in Dallas.

Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, wrote "The Republican War on Voting" in the April issue of The American Prospect.

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