By Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
House Democrats, preparing for a vote today on contempt citations against President Bush's chief of staff and former counsel, produced a report yesterday that for the first time alleges specific ways that several administration officials may have broken the law during the multiple firings of U.S. attorneys.
The report says that Congress's seven-month investigation into the firings raises "serious concerns" that senior White House and Justice Department aides involved in the removal of nine U.S. attorneys last year may have obstructed justice and violated federal statutes that protect civil service employees, prohibit political retaliation against government officials and cover presidential records.
The 52-page memorandum, from House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), seeks to explain why Democrats are trying to overcome an effort by the White House to shield officials and documents from the congressional inquiry through a claim of executive privilege. The report also provides the first written account of the Democrats' interpretation of the firings and the administration's response to the controversy.
The investigation "has uncovered serious evidence of wrongdoing by the department and White House staff," Conyers says.
The memorandum says the probe has turned up evidence that some of the U.S. attorneys were improperly selected for firing because of their handling of vote fraud allegations, public corruption cases or other cases that could affect close elections. It also says that Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and senior Justice aides "appear to have made false or misleading statements to Congress, many of which sought to minimize the role of White House personnel."
In addition, the memorandum asserts repeatedly that the president's top political adviser, Karl Rove, was the first administration official to broach the idea of firing U.S. attorneys shortly after the 2004 election -- an assertion the White House has said is not true.
In one of more than 300 footnotes, the Democrats point to a Jan. 6, 2005, e-mail from an assistant White House counsel that says that Rove "stopped by to ask . . . how we planned to proceed regarding U.S. attorneys, whether we were going to allow them to stay, request resignations from all and accept only some of them, or selectively replace them, etc."
The memorandum says that lawmakers need access to White House information to determine whether laws were broken and to rewrite laws regarding U.S. attorneys.
Yesterday evening, White House deputy press secretary Tony Fratto responded to the Democrats' contentions by saying: "Repeating unsubstantiated assertions over and over again won't make them come true. After months of hearings and thousands of pages of documents, the committee appears to have now shown what little they have to show for it."
Conyers released the memorandum to Judiciary Committee members, who are set to vote on two contempt-of-Congress resolutions. One is against White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten, who is the custodian of the e-mails and other documents related to the firings that lawmakers have been seeking. The other is against former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers, who was subpoenaed to testify before the panel two weeks ago but did not appear.
Last week, White House officials vowed that if the full House holds the two officials in contempt, they would block lawmakers' ability to bring the charges before a federal judge by preventing any U.S. attorney from pursuing such a case. The administration cited a 1984 Justice Department legal opinion, never adjudicated in the courts, that said that a federal prosecutor cannot be compelled to bring a case seeking to override a president's executive privilege claim.
In the memorandum, the Democrats provide the first legal justification for countering the White House's view, saying that the 1984 legal opinion "does not apply here." For one thing, the Democrats contend, Bush has not invoked the privilege properly because he has not furnished a signed statement or "privilege logs" specifying the documents being withheld. In addition, the memo says, "there is not the slightest indication" the 1984 opinion would apply to a former executive branch official, such as Miers.