Justice Department aims to avoid contempt vote on Holder over Fast and Furious


Attorney General Eric Holder. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Justice Department officials are working behind the scenes to avert a vote in Congress next week on contempt charges against Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. stemming from the investigation of Operation Fast and Furious.

Justice officials are talking to staffers for Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, to reach a compromise on the documents that Issa has subpoenaed on the botched “gun walking” operation. Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole offered again Monday to meet with Issa, saying, “We believe that an amicable resolution of these matters is achievable.” He also has offered to meet with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

Several other current and former Justice officials said they are skeptical that they will be able to stop the contempt vote.

“This is political theater, and it’s been political theater from the beginning,” said Holder’s former spokesman, Matthew Miller. “There is no evidence that the attorney general or senior Justice officials knew anything about the Fast and Furious tactics. I don’t think Chairman Issa wants a solution. He wants a contempt vote.”

Issa, who has consistently denied that his investigation is political, scheduled a contempt-of-Congress vote for June 20. In a statement Monday, he said Holder “has failed to meet his legal obligations” by not providing documents and other information requested in a subpoena issued in October as part of the committee’s investigation. “This comes after repeated warnings to the Attorney General about the consequences of his continued failure to produce subpoenaed documents related to the reckless conduct that occurred in Operation Fast and Furious,” Issa said.

If the House committee cites Holder for criminal contempt, it would open a process that requires the House speaker to schedule a floor vote. If passed by the full House, the matter would then move to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Ronald C. Machen Jr., who is an employee of the Justice Department.

Fast and Furious was run out of the Phoenix division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives between 2009 and January 2011, with the legal backing of the U.S. attorney there. Federal agents targeting the Sinaloa Mexican drug cartel did not intercept more than 2,000 guns suspected of being bought illegally, in the hope of tracking them to the cartel. The agency lost track of most of the firearms, some of which have been found at crime scenes in Mexico and the United States.

Two of the guns connected to the operation were found at the crime scene south of Tucson where U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent Brian Terry was killed in December 2010.

“Mr. Holder has shown his contempt for our constitutional rights, our border, Arizonans and all Americans,” said Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), who is the sponsor of a no-confidence resolution on Holder, which has 114 co-sponsors. “We shall now hold him in contempt of Congress.”

During a House hearing last week, Holder said Justice has cooperated for months with Issa’s committee, providing 7,600 pages of documents and making numerous officials available to testify. Holder has testified eight times on Capitol Hill since the controversy began.

“We are deeply troubled by the prospect that the Attorney General will be cited for contempt by your committee, and believe that such action is unwarranted,” the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said in a letter to Issa, one of 11 such letters from national organizations to Issa or Boehner.

Issa is pushing for more documents, saying his committee wants to know whether senior officials knew of the Fast and Furious tactic of allowing guns to “walk.” They cite the 80,000 pages of information given to Justice’s inspector general, who is also investigating the gun operation.

Justice officials say that they cannot give Issa material on the ongoing criminal investigation or the court-sealed wiretap applications. They also said that Holder ordered the inspector general to investigate Fast and Furious when he learned of it.

“The Committee has ignored the fundamental — and undeniable — facts that this attorney general put a stop to the misguided tactics, called for an investigation of this flawed operation and instituted reforms to prevent this from happening again,” Justice spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said.

Sari Horwitz covers the Justice Department and criminal justice issues nationwide for The Washington Post, where she has been a reporter for 30 years. Follow her @SariHorwitz.
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