President Barack Obama’s assertion of executive privilege did not stop a House panel from sending a Contempt of Congress charge against embattled Attorney General Eric Holder to the full House of Representatives for consideration because of Holder’s unwillingness to produce certain documents long requested by the committee.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), voted 23 to 17 along party lines in favor of the contempt charge, to try to force Holder to comply with a subpoena issued eight months ago as part of a 16-month congressional investigation that Republicans say has been marred by obstruction by the Justice Department.
Committee member Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) said Holder exhibited “willful ignorance while under oath.” Labrador is among the more than 100 House members and four senators who have called on Holder to step down.
“He knows nothing, he says nothing, and he seeks for nothing. Never in my life have I been met with a man more unconcerned with the search for the truth,” Labrador said. “Mr. Holder is either not telling the truth or he is grossly incompetent. I repeat my call for his resignation.”
Heated debate over the contempt vote persisted throughout the day.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole sent a letter to Rep. Issa (R-Calif.) on Wednesday morning invoking executive privilege over a narrow subset of documents in the case.
“I write now to inform you that the president has asserted executive privilege over relevant post-February 4, 2011 documents,” the Cole letter said. “We regret that we have arrived at this point, after the many steps we have taken to address the Committee’s concerns and to accommodate the Committee’s legitimate oversight interests regarding Operation Fast and Furious. Although we are deeply disappointed that the Committee appears intent on proceeding with a contempt vote, the Department remains willing to work with the Committee to reach a mutually satisfactory resolution of the outstanding issues.”
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.)
said, “As we speak, as I speak, the committee is evaluating this and verified that no communication from the president has arrived before the House.”
Issa stated later in the hearing that upon hearing from the president about executive privilege, he would carve that narrow content out of the contempt charge.
“More than eight months after a subpoena, and clearly after this could have and should have been asserted, this untimely assertion by the Justice Department falls short of any reason to delay today’s proceedings,” Issa said.
Operation Fast and Furious was a Justice Department program that began in September 2009 and allowed nearly 2,000 guns to flow into Mexico with the intent of tracking the guns to drug cartel leaders. The operation was halted when two of the guns in the operation were found at the murder scene of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.
The Terry family attorney, Pat McGroder, issued a statement to the media regarding the Obama administration’s actions.
“Attorney General Eric Holder’s refusal to fully disclose the documents associated with Operation Fast and Furious and President Obama’s assertion of executive privilege serves to compound the tragedy,” the Terry family statement said. “It denied the Terry family and the American people the truth. Our son, Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, was killed by members of a Mexican drug cartel armed with weapons from this failed Justice Department gun trafficking investigation.”
The Justice Department contends it provided the Oversight Committee with 7,600 pages of documents. But the committee said that is just a small portion of the more than 100,000 pages of subpoenaed documents pertaining to a botched gun-sting investigation.
The committee is seeking only documents after Feb. 4, 2011 because that is the date when the Justice Department first denied whistleblower allegations that guns were allowed to walk. (Feb. 4, 2011 was the date of the letter from Deputy Attorney General Ronald Weich to Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) stating that the Justice Department was not involved in gun walking.)
The Justice Department did not withdraw its initial denial until Dec. 2, 2011. The committee wants to know about internal deliberations regarding the DOJ’s evolving story, and reactions of high-ranking government officials who had knowledge of the gun walking operation.
Holder met Tuesday on Capitol Hill with the committee in private to seek to avert a contempt charge. According to Issa, the only offer Holder made to provide documents involved the committee ending the investigation.
Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) complained about the cost of the congressional investigation.
Issa responded, “Watergate cost a lot of money too.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member of the committee, said the committee should have accepted the attorney general’s offer, and that the committee should study the executive privilege claim before taking action.
“You refused to even commit to working toward a mutually agreeable resolution,” Cummings said. “Instead, you rushed to a prearranged press conference to announce the failure of the meeting. It seems clear that you had no interest in resolving this issue, and that the committee planned to go forward with contempt before we walked into the meeting with the attorney general.”
Shortly before the vote on forwarding the contempt charge to the full House, in the all-day hearing, Cummings said, “Some people really screwed up. I don’t necessarily think folks were trying to obstruct, trying to cover up and on and on and on.”
Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), a former chairman of the committee, said that Issa has been very patient with Holder.
“There’s no question the attorney general has been stonewalling this committee,” Burton said. “The chairman has contacted him and his associates numerous times without results. When the chairman met with him in the last 24 hours there was no information forthcoming to set aside this contempt hearing today.”