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GOP congressman linked to Jan. 6 probe assigned to House committee investigating Biden

Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) arrives on Capitol Hill for a Republican caucus meeting on the first day of the 118th Congress. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

In his decade as a member of Congress, Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) has downplayed the severity of Puerto Rico’s hurricane damage, refused to condemn QAnon, blasted coronavirus vaccine and mask mandates, and spread a baseless conspiracy theory about a Las Vegas mass shooting.

But it was Perry’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in favor of Donald Trump that attracted the attention of the Department of Justice, which seized Perry’s cellphone last summer as part of its investigation into the events leading up to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, when a pro-Trump mob overran the U.S. Capitol seeking to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s victory.

None of that prevented Perry from being named Tuesday to the powerful House Oversight and Accountability Committee, along with several other of former president Donald Trump’s staunchest and most controversial allies. The panel’s new chairman, Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), has made investigating President Biden and his family a top priority, with implications for a possible rematch between Biden and Trump in 2024.

The White House immediately cried foul, citing the fact that Perry and three other new committee members — Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) and Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) — all voted against certifying the results of the 2020 election and have spread Trump’s baseless claims that widespread voter fraud cost him the presidential race.

But Perry’s assignment to the Oversight committee in particular has triggered alarm bells for Democrats and governmental ethics experts, who warn of his unprecedented conflicts of interest as a witness in an active Justice Department probe into the Jan. 6 attack — who now sits on a committee that may investigate law enforcement agencies that have conducted reviews about efforts to overturn the election.

“He’s not sort of an incidental witness,” said Noah Bookbinder, president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan watchdog organization. “He’s someone who really seems to have been involved in the effort to overturn an election. ... There are enough potential conflicts of interest that he, as we see it, he pretty clearly shouldn’t be there probably at all.”

Bookbinder emphasized that the Justice Department’s seizure of Perry’s phone could not have taken place without a judge signing off on a warrant indicating there was probable cause to believe the phone may have evidence of criminal activity.

In a blistering statement, White House spokesman Ian Sams accused House GOP leaders of “handing the keys of Oversight to the most extreme MAGA members of the Republican caucus who promote violent rhetoric and dangerous conspiracy theories,” noting that Perry in particular had downplayed the insurrection and defied a subpoena from the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack.

“As we have said before, the Biden Administration stands ready to work in good faith to accommodate Congress’ legitimate oversight needs. However, with these members joining the Oversight Committee, it appears that House Republicans may be setting the stage for divorced-from-reality political stunts, instead of engaging in bipartisan work on behalf of the American people,” Sams said.

A representative for House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) pushed back on the White House’s criticism, when asked if Perry was fit to serve on the Oversight committee.

“If the Biden White House thinks insulting our members will provide them quarter from House Republicans’ constitutional obligation to conduct oversight, they are sorely mistaken,” McCarthy spokesman Chad Gilmartin said.

A representative for Perry’s office said the congressman had condemned the Jan. 6 attack and emphasized that Perry was a witness, not the subject, of the Justice Department’s Jan. 6 probe, but did not address questions sent by email about whether Perry had a conflict of interest.

“I won’t be bullied onto the sidelines by a President who struggles daily with basic facts and transparency — like his wanton failure to secure our borders, and his ceaseless lack of desire to protect national security. The American People demand answers, and they will have them,” Perry said in a statement.

Perry has waved off concerns about whether he should serve on oversight committees.

“Why should I be limited, why should anybody be limited, just because someone has made an accusation? Everybody in America is innocent until proven otherwise,” Perry said earlier this month. “I would say this: The American people are really, really tired of the persecution and instruments of federal power being used against them.”

Bookbinder called Perry’s explanation for his refusal to recuse himself from oversight “ludicrous on its face.”

“What looks like [Perry’s] maybe willful ignorance about how conflicts of interest and recusal work is really distressing for somebody who is going to be in an oversight position that can be immensely powerful in terms of having real effects on any part of the government. I think that suggests danger ahead,” Bookbinder said.

“It certainly suggests that he is likely to aggressively participate in committee investigations regardless of whether he has real legitimate conflict of interest with them,” he added.

The bipartisan House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack last year referred Perry to the House Ethics Committee for failing to comply with its subpoena.

The Jan. 6 committee had long been interested in Perry’s efforts to help install a little-known Justice Department official named Jeffrey Clark in the role of acting attorney general. Last July, the committee detailed a plan that involved Trump ousting then-acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and replacing him with Clark, who would then use his power to encourage key states won by Biden to send in alternate slates of pro-Trump electors. A report by the committee determined Perry introduced Clark to Trump and also cited evidence that Perry repeatedly communicated with Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff, about Clark.

But a defiant Perry snubbed the committee’s subpoena, saying that he would decline “to appear for deposition” and requesting the subpoena be “immediately withdrawn.” He failed to show up for a deposition on May 26, 2022, as well as for a follow-up meeting the select committee scheduled in June.

Nevertheless, Perry and his efforts to work with Trump allies to overturn the election are mentioned often throughout the Jan. 6 committee’s final report.

In one portion, acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue described interactions he had with Perry, including a phone call he received from the congressman. Perry said Trump told him to call, according to notes Donoghue took at the time, and later provided to the select committee. In that conversation Perry said he couldn’t understand why the Justice Department had said nothing about the Hunter Biden investigation prior to the election, a reference to the president’s son. Perry also rattled off other problems with the agency to make a point: the FBI doesn’t always do the right thing in all instances, Donoghue said.

Perry also alleged that, based on a review of election data in Pennsylvania, there were 205,000 more votes than voters, which the congressman said was evidence of fraud. Perry later sent Donoghue an email about it, which Donoghue forwarded to one of the U.S. attorneys in Pennsylvania, Scott Brady. But the mathematical discrepancy Perry was citing actually had a simple explanation, according to Brady: Not every county in Pennsylvania had reported their data to the state election website.

Perry also played a key role in pushing a fringe conspiracy theory known as “Italygate” to Meadows, according to December 2020 text messages between the two men revealed by the Jan. 6 committee.

“Why can’t we just work with the Italian government?” Perry texted Meadows, after sending him a YouTube video about the baseless theory, which alleges that an Italian defense contractor conspired with senior CIA officials to use military satellites to flip votes from Trump to Biden.

There exist almost no mechanisms by which Perry could be removed from oversight duties, short of a personal recusal or action by GOP leadership, Bookbinder said.

“The House can vote to remove someone from a committee,” he said. “But with Republicans in control and Republican leadership putting him on those committees, it’s hard to imagine that the House would even take something like that up to a vote, let alone actually vote to remove him.”

And Perry himself appeared to double down on his insistence that he had no reason to step down from his new committee assignment.

“Honored to be on the House Oversight Committee — boy do I have some questions,” he tweeted Tuesday.

Kim Bellware contributed to this report.

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