The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is scheduled to vote next week on holding Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt of Congress for refusing to provide information tied to an ongoing investigation into the Justice Department’s “Fast and Furious” gunwalking investigation.
In a statement, Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said Holder “has failed to meet his legal obligations” by not providing documents and other information requested in a congressional subpoena issued last October as part of his committee’s investigation into the scandal.
“If the Attorney General decides to produce these subpoenaed documents, I am confident we can reach agreement on other materials and render the process of contempt unnecessary,” Issa said.
The move was first reported by CBS News, which noted that the contempt vote would be just the fourth time in the past three decades that Congress has launched contempt action against an Executive Branch official.
Issa’s decision to hold a vote comes after Holder clashed last week with Republican lawmakers at a contentious hearing over the Justice Department’s voter ID laws and his handling of the botched “Fast and Furious” investigation, in which federal agents allowed suspected arms traffickers to buy more than 2,000 guns so they could track them to a Mexican drug cartel.
During the hearing, Issa slammed onto the dais court-sealed wiretap applications in the case, which he said he had received from whistleblowers. He claimed that they showed that senior Justice Department officials learned about the operation earlier than they had acknowledged.
“Have you and your attorneys produced internally the materials responsive to the subpoenas?” Issa asked.
“We believe that we have responded to the subpoenas,” Holder replied.
“No, Mr. Attorney General, you’re not a good witness!” Issa shouted. “A good witness answers the question asked.”
One by one, Republicans hammered Holder, and Democratic members of Congress came to his defense. The attorney general, who has appeared before Congress eight times in the past year, pushed back several times. When Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) insisted that an e-mail written by a deputy assistant attorney general referred to the “gun walking” tactics used in Fast and Furious, Holder maintained it did not.
“I have superior knowledge,” Holder shot back.
Issa has threatened for months to hold Holder in contempt of Congress if Justice officials do not turn over more documents tied to the scandal. During the hearing, Holder insisted that his department is cooperating with Issa’s committee.
“We’ve produced 7,600,” Holder started to say, referring to the pages that Justice officials have turned over to Issa’s committee.
But Issa angrily interrupted him. “Look, I don’t want to hear about the 7,600,” he said.
Last week, Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said that Issa “continues to distort the facts” and that senior department officials “were not aware of the flawed tactics in Fast and Furious until they became public in early 2011.” Schmaler also said that court-sealed wiretap applications in an ongoing criminal case were illegally leaked to Issa’s committee and Justice officials could not discuss them.
In the broader House, Republican leaders co-signed a letter with Issa to President Obama asking that the Justice Department comply with the congressional subpoena. The letter was seen as the first step before the committee’s contempt vote and a possible vote by the full House.
In a statement, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Monday that “Congress can no longer wait. Assuming Attorney General Holder continues to stonewall, we will have no choice but to hold him in contempt for his failure to provide the documents necessary to prevent a tragedy like this from happening again.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), ranking Democrat on the oversight panel, said he was disappointed by the decision to hold a contempt vote, “but I am guardedly optimistic that a path forward exists that will serve the legitimate interests of the Committee in conducting rigorous oversight, protect the legitimate interests of the Department in its ongoing investigations and prosecutions, and avoid the needless politicization of this very serious issue.”
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who initiated congressional investigations into the scandal, said Monday that next week’s contempt vote “is straightforward and necessary.”
“Contempt is the only tool Congress has to enforce a subpoena,” Grassley said in a statement. “The Department of Justice can avoid the action by complying with its legal obligation. It’s not about personalities. It’s a procedural mechanism in our system of checks and balances. If Congress is afraid to pursue answers to questions, it’s not doing its job.”
At the daily White House press briefing, Press Secretary Jay Carney said Holder “takes the allegations that have been raised very seriously” and has cooperated with both the congressional and an ongoing inspector general investigation.
This story has been updated.
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