The Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee announced Monday morning the committee will consider holding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress on June 20 relating to the ongoing Fast and Furious ATF gun trafficking scandal. Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has alleged that the Justice Department has not responded to the Committee's subpoena seeking internal DOJ documents following the drafting of a February 4, 2011 letter that contained inaccurate information about ATF's operations.
"The Justice Department has refused to turn over critical documents on the grounds that they show internal Department deliberations and were created after February 4, 2011 - the date Justice issued a false denial to Congress. Contempt will focus on the failure to provide these post-February 4 th documents." Chairman Issa said in a statement.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) have been investigating the actions of ATF and Justice Department officials involving the gun trafficking case that resulted in about 2,000 guns going to drug cartels and criminal groups in Mexico.
The ATF's flawed "Fast and Furious" operations allowed firearms to "walk" across the U.S. border into Mexico in hopes of tracing the guns and locating major weapons traffickers. ATF devised the program in 2009 to try to track straw purchases of firearms where a gun is legally bought but then illegally sold to another individual. The operation took a tragic turn when two weapons found in December 2010 at the scene of murdered U.S. Border Patrol Brian Terry were found to be linked to Fast and Furious.
Issa takes issue with what he claims is the Justice Department's efforts to not turn over documents to Congress following the drafting of a February 4, 2011 letter.
That letter, sent to Sen. Grassley and his staff from Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich, included the line, "ATF makes every effort to interdict weapons that have been purchased illegally and prevent their transportation to Mexico."
DOJ later retracted the letter and revised it and communications showing how it was drafted. According to documents released by the Justice Department, then U.S. Attorney in Arizona, Dennis Burke, wrote on January 31, 2011 to DOJ officials working on the response letter: "Grassley's assertions regarding the Arizona investigation and the weapons recovered at the BP Agent Terry murder scene are based on categorical falsehoods."
It is unclear, based on the documents released who was providing inaccurate information to Burke about ATF's role in Fast and Furious and the determination that the guns were linked to the horribly run gun smuggling operation. Burke resigned his post as U.S. Attorney last year as the scandal unfolded.
Last Thursday Rep. Issa clashed with Attorney General Holder at a House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing.
"I want to ask you, first of all, today, 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 said.
Issa snapped, "No, Mr. Attorney General, you're not a good witness. A good witness answers the question asked. So let's go back again: Have you and your attorneys produced internally the materials response? In other words, have you taken the time to look up our subpoena and find out what material you have responsive to it, or have you simply invented a privilege that doesn't exist?"
Holder testified that the Justice Department has processed millions of electronic records, and reviewed over 140,000 documents and produced 7,600 document to Issa's subpoenas.
The Justice Department's Inspector General is conducting a wide ranging review of Fast and Furious and another botched ATF gun trafficking operation dubbed Wide Receiver. Unlike the congressional investigation the Department's Inspector General has access to all Justice Department documents including secret grand jury materials.
Rep. Issa and his investigators have found new legs in their investigation by obtaining a series of court sealed ATF wiretaps that were provided by whistleblowers.
"[The wiretap applications] indicate that a number of key individuals in your administration in fact were responsible for information contained in here that clearly shows that the tactics of Fast and Furious were known. They were known and are contained in these wiretaps," Issa told Holder at last weeks hearing.
"I have read them, and I disagree with the conclusion you've just reached," Holder rebutted about the wiretaps. During the hearing Holder testified that the deputy assistant attorney general at the Justice Department who reviewed the applications, did not review all the paperwork associated with the wiretap request but relied on a summary of the wiretap application.
"While the Justice Department can still stop the process of contempt, this will only occur through the delivery of the post February 4, 2011, documents related to Operation Fast and Furious and whistleblower accusations subpoenaed by the Committee. 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 in a statement Monday.
The committee's vote is scheduled for June 20. The action will be only the fourth time in 30 years that Congress has held a vote to hold an executive branch member in contempt.
"The Justice Department is out of excuses," House Speak John Boehner said in a statement. "Congress has given Attorney General Holder more than enough time to fully cooperate with its investigation into 'Fast and Furious,' and to help uncover the circumstances regarding the death of Border Agent Brian Terry. Agent Terry's family, the whistleblowers who brought this issue to light, and the American people deserve answers. Either the Justice Department turns over the information requested, or Congress will have no choice but to move forward with holding the Attorney General in contempt for obstructing an ongoing investigation."
The Justice Department reacted strongly to the calls for a contempt hearing. "From the beginning, Chairman Issa has distorted the facts, ignored testimony and flung inaccurate accusations at the Attorney General and others, and this latest move fits within that tired political playbook that has so many Americans disillusioned with Washington," said Justice Department Spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler in a statement.
"The Committee has ignored the fundamental - and undeniable - facts that this Attorney General put a stop to the misguided tactics, called for an investigation of this flawed operation and instituted reforms to prevent this from happening again. As recently as a few days ago, the Department staff and Committee staff were discussing a way toward a resolution of this matter," Schmaler said.