By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
The House Judiciary Committee filed a lawsuit yesterday to enforce subpoenas against President Bush's chief of staff and his former counsel in a probe of suspected White House involvement in the 2006 firings of nine federal prosecutors.
The panel filed the federal court suit against Joshua B. Bolten, White House chief of staff since April 2006, and Harriet E. Miers, a close associate of Bush's from Texas who resigned as White House counsel in January 2007 after a little more than two years on the job.
The committee's action marked the first time in U.S. history that either chamber of Congress has sued the Executive Branch to enforce a subpoena, according to a spokesman for the House Judiciary Committee.
The lawsuit charges that Bolten and Miers, who were cited by the House for contempt of Congress last month, defied committee subpoenas by refusing to testify or provide documents demanded by the panel. The House passed the contempt citation by a vote of 223 to 32 after most Republicans boycotted the proceeding.
But Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey said White House aides involved in the case cannot be prosecuted because they were following legal advice from the Justice Department. He refused to refer the contempt citation to a grand jury.
The refusal of Bolten and Miers to comply with the subpoenas "did not constitute a crime," Mukasey said in a Feb. 29 letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the Judiciary Committee chairman, described Mukasey's refusal as "contrary to federal law" and said the panel filed the civil lawsuit to enforce the subpoenas.
"We will not allow the administration to steamroll Congress," Conyers said in a statement. "The administration's extreme claims to be immune from the oversight process are at odds with our constitutional principles on which this country was founded, and I am confident the federal courts will agree."
Conyers added: "I do not take this step lightly. . . . Unfortunately, this administration simply will not negotiate towards a compromise resolution, so we must proceed." He said he looks forward to "a quick and favorable ruling by the court, so that we can complete our investigation."
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino accused the committee of engaging in "partisan theater."
She told reporters, "The confidentiality that the president receives from his senior advisers and the constitutional principle of separation of powers must be protected from overreaching, and we are confident that the courts will agree with us."
Nearly a dozen Justice Department officials, including former attorney general Alberto R. Gonzales, have resigned since evidence in the investigation became public, the committee said.
"Documents turned over by the department indicate that the White House played a substantial role in the development and execution of the plan to force U.S. attorneys to resign," Conyers's office said in a statement.
The committee is asking the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to find, among other things, that Miers is not immune from the subpoena and that executive privilege does not cover documents that do not involve the president.
According to the lawsuit, the committee launched its investigation in part to "examine allegations of malfeasance, abuse of authority and violations of existing laws by Executive Branch personnel."
It says the year-long investigation "has uncovered substantial evidence" that the Bush administration and Justice Department "injected partisan considerations into the forced resignations or retention of U.S. attorneys."
It cites "credible evidence" that U.S. attorneys who "failed to return desired indictments or failed to bring voter fraud prosecutions that were considered politically useful to the administration were forced to resign," as were those who "prosecuted officeholders allied with the administration."