updated 9/17/2004 6:10:16 PM ET 2004-09-17T22:10:16

The Justice Department is investigating accusations that Florida law enforcement officers intimidated elderly black voters during a probe of voting fraud last spring.

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Sheldon Bradshaw, principal deputy assistant attorney general with the department’s Civil Rights Division, disclosed the investigation after Mary Frances Berry, chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, raised the matter at a commission hearing Friday.

“We are aware, and we have opened an investigation,” Bradshaw said. “I’m not at liberty to discuss details” because the probe is ongoing, he said.

There have been growing calls for a federal investigation of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s response to allegations of voter fraud in Orlando’s mayoral election. Democrat Buddy Dyer’s narrow victory sparked accusations that a black activist may have improperly filled out absentee ballots. FDLE agents interviewed dozens of voters who cast absentee ballots.

Civil rights groups and Democrats contended the agents’ presence and behavior, including allegedly displaying their guns, intimidated the minority voters they visited.

Democratic Sens. Bob Graham of Florida and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, as well as Florida’s three black Democratic House members, demanded an investigation in letters last month to Attorney General John Ashcroft.

The FDLE denies any intimidation occurred, and Justice Department spokesman Geo Morales said Friday he was unaware of a DOJ investigation.

“There was no intimidation,” he said. “They went out into the community and interviewed a random sample of witnesses in an investigation of absentee ballot fraud.”

Also at the Civil Rights Commission hearing:

—Bradshaw said the Justice Department was sending hundreds of observers to polling places Nov. 2 in the “most extensive monitoring of an election in recent history.”

—Berry and civil rights group officials said disenfranchisement of minority voters remains a problem. “We’re concerned about disparate treatment, we’re concerned about the laws being enforced unfairly,” said Berry, a Democrat.

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