Fox News’s Megyn Kelly spent more time on the 2008 New Black Panther “voter intimidation” story than any other TV journalist. As Media Matters records here, Kelly was first out of the gate tying probable Labor Secretary nominee, current head of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division Tom Perez to the story. (I enjoy the meta use of chyrons here. He’s “coming under fire,” says the news alert – but from who, besides Fox?)
It’s not a surprise that Kelly got to this angle first. It’s a surprise that she bobbled it. According to Kelly, Perez’s “fingerprints are all over some rather significant controversies, including questions about whether he may have lied about his role in the New Black Panther Party intimidation case.” That case grew out of a brief incident on Election Day 2008, when two members of the racist fringe group appeared at a mostly-black Philadelphia polling place, stood around for a while, and left after Republican poll watchers shamed them on video. The Obama administration was handed the case by the Bush administration—which had downgraded it from a criminal case to a civil case. DOJ won it easily, and then—cue scandal—dropped the charges.
Here’s the problem. The DOJ dropped those charges in May 2009. Perez wasn’t confirmed until October 2009. The reason, of course, was that Republicans delayed the vote as they bargained for more answers on the New Black Panther story. But even had Perez been confirmed right after his hearings, in June, he would have arrived after the decision was made to drop the case.
So what is Kelly talking about? In 2010, a former Bush appointee,* J. Christian Adams, left DOJ and started accusing his former co-workers of dumping the case and covering their tracks. His target: Perez. In May 2010, a year after his predecessors dropped the case, Perez told the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that “after reviewing the matter, the Civil Rights Division determined that the facts did not constitute a prosecutable violation of the criminal statutes,” characterizing it as “career people disagreeing with career people.” Two years later, ruling for Judicial Watch in its effort to FOIA key memos, Judge Reggie Walton wrote that the memos “reveal that political appointees within DOJ were conferring about the status and resolution of the New Black Panther Party case in the days preceding the DOJ’s dismissal of claims in that case, which would appear to contradict Assistant Attorney General Perez’s testimony that political leadership was not involved in that decision.”
This was the accusation: Obama appointees overruled the career appointees. And this was the problem: Perez, who is a pretty good lawyer, used his testimony to evade the difference between “over-ruling” and conferring. For example:
COMMISSIONER GAZIANO: It would be a problem for the Civil Rights Division if any political appointee or supervising attorney expressed the view that the voting rights laws should never be enforced against blacks or other racial minorities?
ASST. ATTY. GEN. PEREZ: I don’t agree with that viewpoint.
COMMISSIONER GAZIANO: It would be a problem for the Division, too, wouldn’t it? I’m glad you don’t agree with it, but it would be a problem for the –
ASST. ATTY. GEN. PEREZ: That is not our practice. We look at facts and the law.
So the accusation here both 1) sort of sloppily blames Perez for something that happened before he got to DOJ and 2) accuses him of lying based on a hedged opinion about the testimony Perez eventually gave. Fun story.
*I originally called Adams embittered. He disputed that, saying “I’m happy as can be, and having fun.” Fair enough!