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House Committee Votes to Charge Attorney General with Contempt

June 20, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing today to consider charging Attorney General Eric Holder with contempt of Congress over the withholding of documents related to "Operation Fast and Furious." Split along party lines, Republican representatives voted to recommend the full House take action.
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JEFFREY BROWN: A congressional panel passed judgment on Attorney General Eric Holder today.

Ray Suarez has the story.

(GAVEL POUNDS)

REP. DARRELL ISSA, R-Calif.: The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will come to order.

RAY SUAREZ: House Republicans came to today’s hearing ready to cite Attorney General Holder for contempt of Congress, at issue, his refusal to turn over additional documents on Operation Fast and Furious, a botched gun-smuggling probe in Arizona.

But shortly before the hearing started, President Obama invoked executive privilege to justify withholding the documents. In a letter to committee Chairman Darrell Issa, a top Holder deputy wrote: “We regret that we have arrived at this point, after the many steps we have taken to address the committee’s concerns.”

But Issa said the committee wouldn’t be deterred.

REP. DARRELL ISSA: More than eight months after a subpoena and clearly after the question of executive privilege could have and should have been asserted, this untimely assertion by the Justice Department falls short of any reason to delay today’s proceedings.

RAY SUAREZ: Democrats urged Issa to reconsider.

Elijah Cummings of Maryland and others argued the contempt proceeding is a partisan witch-hunt.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS, D-M.D.: In this case, it seems clear that the administration was forced into a position by the committee’s unreasonable insistence on pressing forward with contempt, despite the attorney general’s good-faith offer.

Mr. Chairman, it didn’t have to be this way. It really didn’t.

RAY SUAREZ: The road that led to the looming confrontation goes back a year-and-a-half, and the start of the committee’s investigation.

Under Fast and Furious, federal agents let drug smugglers buy thousands of guns, so law enforcers could track the weapons. Instead, they lost track of the guns, and many were used in crimes, including the 2010 killing of a U.S. border agent.

So far, the Justice Department has handed over 7,600 pages of material, and Holder said Tuesday, that should be enough.

ERIC HOLDER, U.S. Attorney General: Well, I have to say given the extraordinary nature of the offer that we made and given the extraordinary way in which we have shared materials to date, that I think we are actually involved more in political gamesmanship, as opposed to trying to get the information they say they want.

RAY SUAREZ: But Republicans, including Utah’s Jason Chaffetz, insist they have not been told everything.

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ, R-Utah: We have hundreds of dead people in Mexico. We have a dead United States Border Patrol agent. And we have a government that’s withholding information, so that we can not only get to the bottom of it, but that we can fix it and make sure that it never, ever happens again.

RAY SUAREZ: In the end, the committee voted along party lines to recommend that the full House hold the attorney general in contempt.

After the 23-17 tally came in, Republican House leaders promised a full chamber vote on Holder next week.

For his part, Attorney General Holder called the vote divisive, unprecedented and unnecessary, and insisted his department had tried to cooperate with Chairman Issa.

Now we hear from each side.

We’re joined from Capitol Hill by Florida Republican John Mica and Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich. Both representatives are on the Oversight Committee.

And, Rep. Kucinich, let me start with you. By common agreement, there were ongoing negotiations over the document turnover. Were the two sides close? Could today’s vote have been avoided?

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH, D-Ohio: I think it could have been avoided if there was no intention to push the issue of contempt.

Once you start to get into contempt, there’s momentum that develops towards that regardless of what’s being offered. The fact of the matter is, there were thousands of documents produced by the Justice Department. The attorney general himself has appeared before Congress many times on this matter. It’s hardly — he’s hardly been hiding.

And I think that even at this late date, there still should be a way to divert from a process where Congress itself has to vote on this contempt citation.

RAY SUAREZ: Rep. Mica, this is an unprecedented vote. Why was it important to the majority to cite Attorney General Holder?

REP. JOHN MICA, R-Fla.: Well, first of all, we have tried to work with him.

As Mr. Kucinich said, Holder wasn’t hiding himself. But what he was doing was hiding the documents that we’re seeking, because, again, the Department of Justice concocted a scheme to send weapons to Mexican drug dealers, of which one of those weapons at least killed a United States enforcement agent. He was dead.

You heard that there were probably several hundred others that were killed by this whole scheme that went sour. We tried up until last night. Last night, they made an offer to give us a dribble of more documents. So far, we have gotten about 7 percent or 8 percent of the documents we know exist.

But the deal last night was, we had to close down the investigation. So selective presentation of evidence in a case in which an agent was killed and others were slaughtered, and all resulting from the actions of the Department of Justice, is not acceptable.

RAY SUAREZ: Rep. Kucinich, how do you respond to that, the core issue here being very important about thousands of weapons ending up south of the border in the hands of criminals?

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Mr. Mica is right. There’s a — you can’t argue whether or not Congress has a right to look into this. We have an obligation to look into it.

The question is, what purpose does it serve to push the contempt issue before the entire House? And of course we also know that after that meeting this morning, the administration has asserted executive privilege, which, by the way, doesn’t just refer to the president. It’s any executive branch privilege that is asserted with respect to its dealing with the legislative branch.

So, at some point, this is — you’re looking at a court fight here. I would prefer that, if there was a way to proceed, that it be done civilly, instead of trying to make it a criminal matter involving the attorney general.

RAY SUAREZ: Representative Mica, does a contempt citation have any force, any teeth, or is it merely congressional bloody showing its displeasure with a member of the executive branch?

REP. JOHN MICA: Well, it’s the one means we have.

Now, we have tried first getting information voluntarily. That went on for 11 months now. Understand that, for 11 months, the Department of Justice denied any involvement. Then we issued subpoenas eight months ago. Those have been ignored.

No one wanted to take this step today to hold for the first time an attorney general of the United States in contempt. Now, he still has an opportunity to cooperate before the action before Congress. And I hope he will.

It’s in everybody’s best interest that we do a full investigation. The family today of agent Terry pleaded for the administration also to produce the documents. Could you imagine your loved one, having him killed with weapons supplied by the Department of Justice, and not having a full investigation?

This is just not fair under the American judicial process or allowing us to exercise our congressional oversight and investigation authority under the Constitution.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Congressman Mica, let me continue with you.

What about the invocation of executive privilege? You’re a long-term veteran member of the House.

REP. JOHN MICA: Yes. I have seen it used.

RAY SUAREZ: There are obviously separation of powers issues here. Is this a legitimate use of that power?

REP. JOHN MICA: Well, both Dennis and I have sat on the panel for a long time. We have seen it used.

There are instances where it should be used. In the past, if we’re dealing with national security issues, I think that might be appropriate, because you don’t want the president to have to disclose — there were some political instances, Dennis, remember, when — it’s a little political game, some of the thing things that are going back.

But this isn’t a game, folks. This is where someone was killed. The Department of Justice is the chief prosecutorial arm of the United States government. And to have, again, an agent killed, I don’t know how many others — estimated hundreds slaughtered by guns that were supplied in this plot that went sour, it does deserve the investigation.

I think the president should be cooperating with us. Everyone should be cooperating and get this behind us and get it fully investigated and hold people responsible. That’s part of what we’re trying to do.

RAY SUAREZ: Rep. Kucinich, same question.

You, too, are a veteran House member. Are you made wary by the use of executive privilege in a case like this, where a branch of government just doesn’t want you, a member of the House, to see what it’s got?

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: I think we have to look at the totality of the Constitution here.

Congress has a right to compel the production of papers and to compel witnesses before the committee. That’s an Article I right. At the same time, the administration, Article II, has the right under the Constitution to say, look, we’re invoking executive privilege — that doesn’t mean just the president, the executive branch privilege — and say, we’re not going to produce that for our own reasons.

Now, the next step then would be to go to the court. And I would hope that, if we can not resolve this, that the one concession that would be made is that we not pursue by resolution a criminal matter. We can pursue a civil matter, have a court make a decision, saying, OK, produce the documents, and then we come back to the court enforcing a resolution of Congress.

I’m concerned about making this a criminal matter, especially when the attorney general himself hasn’t personally been implicated in any of this. And this is a very serious matter to put it on an individual who it can’t be said that this was his personal responsibility.

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, before I let you go, both of you have talked about the seriousness of the core matter here, the investigation into gun-walking.

What is it that, at this point, a year-and-a-half into this investigation, you still feel like you don’t know?

REP. JOHN MICA: Well, we don’t know who’s responsible. I don’t know what Eric Holder knew when.

We don’t — you know, again, the Terry family sort of summed this up today. How would you like your loved one to have been killed by a scheme that was concocted by people in the Department of Justice in which, again, your loved one was murdered with weapons supplied by that agency?

Please, this should be fully investigated. If Eric is — Holder is innocent, find him innocent. If others are guilty and concocted this scheme and were responsible for the death and, again, this whole scheme going sour, they need to hold them accountable.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Congressman Mica, let me get a quick response from Representative Kucinich on that same question.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: The action that Congress has taken, and this committee, essentially is the form of an indictment.

You know, we can find out later on if he’s guilty, but, actually, we should find out if there’s reason to charge him with contempt. And I don’t know that we have really pursued that.

And I do want to say, where I agree with you is that we owe it to the families to get to the bottom of it first. And I also think we owe it to the families to reform the process so this gun-walking/gunrunning doesn’t ever occur again.

REP. JOHN MICA: But he is guilty of contempt of Congress. He did not. . .

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, by virtue of the fact that Congress did that, but it doesn’t necessarily. . .

REP. JOHN MICA: We subpoenaed records, and he is held in contempt for not producing them.

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, we’re going to close it out there.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: My friend John Mica, the congressman, hasn’t made the case for contempt.

RAY SUAREZ: Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and John Mica of Florida, thank you both.

REP. JOHN MICA: Thank you. Thank you.