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White Panther Suit Against FBI Returns To Ann Arbor

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White Panther suit against FBI returns to Ann Arbor


John Sinclair and members of the long-defunct White Panther party, former University of Michigan campus anti-establishment activists, have won a victory in their longstanding suit against the federal government and FBI officials.

A federal appeals court Tuesday rejected an appeal by lawyers representing FBI agents who wanted the case dismissed. The FBI agents’ lawyers sought to stop questioning by lawyers who represent Sinclair and two other former White Panther leaders, Lawrence “Pun” Plamondon and John Waterhouse.

As a result, the Sixth District Court of the U.S. Court of Appeals, based in Cincinnati, will send the case back to Ann Arbor, where it will be heard by U.S. District Judge Charles Joiner.

The White Panther trio filed a civil suit for damages in 1973 against former president Richard Nixon, Nixon’s attorney general John Mitchell, and FBI officials, claiming they were victims of “bad faith prosecution” and illegal electronic surveillance. FBI officials bugged the White Panther headquarters on Hill Street in. Ann Arbor during 1970-71.

A federal judge in Washington, D.C., dismissed the suit in 1975, but the Court of Appeals in 1983 reversed that decision and transferred the case to Ann Arbor for trial before Joiner. The FBI agents appealed when Judge Joiner allowed plaintiffs’ attorneys to continue discovery questioning before the trial. The agents claimed they were protected by qualified immunity and asked that the suit be dismissed.

On Tuesday, the 6th circuit dismissed the appeal and remanded the case back to the eastern district of Michigan, southern division, at Ann Arbor. However, the FBI agents have 14 days to file a petition for a rehearing with the 6th circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, said Ernestine Tennyson, case supervisor in Cincinnati.

In the lawsuit, John Sinclair, Lawrence Plamondon and John Waterhouse sued FBI agents Kenneth Schriber, James Sullivan and Charles Wagner for placing and using wiretaps at the order of Mitchell.

Although the agents placed the taps at the order of Mitchell, the plaintiffs claimed the agents exceeded their authority and violated the plaintiffs’ rights.

Mitchell had claimed immunity for wiretaps that he authorized in cases involving domestic threats to national security. The government did not seek court orders for the taps.

Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges Albert Engel and Nathaniel Jones voted Tuesday to deny the FBI agents’ appeal. Judge David Nelson dissented, saying the agents had the right to protect their qualified immunity.

In his dissent, Nelson said the denial of the appeal until after discovery sets aside “a key part of their claims irrevocably and for all time. A right to avoid the burden of discovery obviously cannot be vindicated after discovery has been completed,” he wrote.

Neither Sinclair, who in recent years has been employed as a music promoter in Detroit at Music Services Associates, nor his attorney, Hugh M. Davis, could be reached for comment Friday.

Sinclair, Plamondon and Water-house Forrest ran the White Panther Party and later the Rainbow People’s Party out of their rented house at 1520 Hill St. during the late 60’s and early 70’s. Sinclair was a guru to the counter-culture movement of the late 1960s and manager of the MC5, one of the nation’s premier revolutionary rock bands.

Plamondon made the FBI’s “10 most wanted” list after he jumped bond on the criminal charges out of which the civil suit arose.

Sinclair became an underground folk hero when he was convicted of possession of two marijuana cigarettes in 1969 and sentenced to 9 and a half to 10 years in prison.

His case generated national attention, including a 1971 “Free John Sinclair” rally at the U-M’s Crisler Arena featuring John Lennon, then Black Panther Chairman Bobby Seale and several of the “Chicago 7” conspiracy defendants.