WASHINGTON - The Justice Department has opened an internal inquiry into its handling of a case of alleged voter intimidation by members of the New Black Panther Party outside a polling place in North Philadelphia.
A civil case filed on Jan. 7 by President George W. Bush's Justice Department was essentially withdrawn in May, prompting an outcry from conservatives alleging that politics was behind the decision.
The day the complaint was filed, the national New Black Panther Party announced on its Web site that the Philadelphia chapter was "suspended from operations and is not recognized by the New Black Panther Party until further notice."
The voice-mail box was full at the party's national headquarters in New York City. The party did not immediately respond to an e-mail.
A phone number for Minister King Samir Shabazz, who had been head of the Philadelphia chapter, is now in use by someone else, and a Web site for the Philadelphia chapter no longer exists.
The department filed its civil complaint against three men, alleging that two of them intimidated voters on Nov. 4 by standing outside a polling place at 12th Street and Fairmount Avenue wearing uniforms, black jackets, combat boots and berets, of the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.
A video of the two men at the polling place - identified by the Justice Department as Shabazz and Jerry Jackson - was widely distributed on the Internet. The video shows a man holding a police-style baton near the entrance to the polling place as voters filed in and out. The third man named in the case was the head of the group's local chapter, but was not present at the polling place.
After the election, party chairman Malik Zulu Shabazz told Fox News that the men were there to provide security because people wearing Nazi insignias had been intimidating voters earlier in the day.
Justice officials later chose to drop the matter against two of the men. Shabazz was ordered to not display weapons within 100 feet of a polling place in Philadelphia.
That prompted some conservatives to argue that the three had gotten off lightly as a result of political interference from the new Democratic administration.
Justice Department officials have said the case was decided by career staffers, not political appointees, based solely on the facts and the relevant law.
The three never responded to the government's lawsuit.
Now the department is conducting an inquiry into that decision, to be handled by the agency's ethics watchdog, the Office of Professional Responsibility.
The head of that office, Mary Patrice Brown, sent a letter to U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R., Texas), saying the matter was now being reviewed. The letter was dated Aug. 28 but only made public yesterday.
Smith, the senior Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, praised Brown's move, saying the Justice Department's handling of the case "reeks of political interference."
Smith urged authorities to pursue the case against the three men "to the fullest extent of the law without political considerations."