House holds Eric Holder in contempt of Congress
Update 5:40 p.m.: Attorney General Eric Holder was cited in contempt of Congress on criminal and civil charges for failing to comply with subpoenas for key documents in an investigation of the government’s failed “Fast and Furious” gun-walking scandal.
The criminal contempt charge passed on a vote of 255 yeas to 67 nays – 17 Democrats voted with Republicans in favor of contempt, and two Republicans — Reps. Scott Rigell of Virginia and Steven LaTourette of Ohio — voted no. More than 100 Democrats declined to vote for or against the charges, and instead staged a walkout of the House chambers to protest the action.
Civil charges passed on a vote of 258 yeas to 95 nays — 21 Democrats joined with all Republicans to find the attorney general in contempt, marking the first time in the nation’s history the top lawmaker has ever been charged as such by the House.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the Justice Department failed to provide documents and facts requested by the Oversight and Government Reform Committee as part of its inquiry into the operation and murder of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
“I think all members understand this is a very serious matter,” Boehner said. “We’ve been patient, given the Justice Department every opportunity to comply so we can get to the bottom of this for Brian Terry’s family. But this leaves us no other option. I hoped it would never come to this. But no Justice Department is above the law and no Justice Department is above the Constitution, which each of us has sworn an oath to uphold.”
The criminal contempt charge now goes before the U.S. Attorney’s office in Washington, D.C., where the decision will be made whether to pursue criminal charges against Holder. Ronald Machen, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, is in charge of that office, and charges will unlikely be filed.
Civil charges mean that Congress can now go to court to try and force the Justice Department to turn over some of the thousands of documents that have been withheld by the Obama administration, which is citing “executive privilege.”
Boehner questioned the executive privilege claim and said the documents being withheld will either show the White House was involved in the fallout and cover-up of the operation, or that the president’s executive privilege claim is frivolous.
“We will use every legal and constitutional tool we have to get to the truth,” said Rep. Richard Nugent (R-Fla.). “I’ve heard people say this is just about politics. That couldn’t be further from the truth. A man died serving his country and we have a right to know what the federal government’s hand was in that.”
The botched gun trafficking investigation in 2009 and 2010 by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed the purchase of 2,000 weapons in the U.S. so that law enforcement could track the guns as they made their way into the hands of Mexican drug cartels south of the border.
Investigators quickly lost track of the weapons that have since turned up at hundreds of crime scenes, including the shooting death of Customs and Border Protection Officer Brian Terry.
“The operation was fatally flawed, and then the wagons got circled,” said Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Penn.).
Holder held a press conference as Congress was casting the final votes, and called the House actions “election year politics and gamesmanship,” as well as a “crass effort and grave disservice to the American people.”
Democrats blamed the scandal on the Bush administration, although the operation did not take place until after Obama was elected president. They also criticized Republicans for wasting Congress’s time with this scandal, rather than focusing on jobs and the economy.
“This procedure does violence to the American constitution,” said Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.). “In the 225 year history of this institution, there has never been a vote like this one before, never.”
Several Democrats said Republicans had no interest in the investigation, but rather wanted to use the agent’s death to pick a fight with Obama.
“This is a witch hunt pure and simple and it has no place in this House,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D –Mass.). “This isn’t about getting to the truth, this is about politics. This is about … doing whatever it takes to attack the Obama administration.”
Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the investigating panel, said his committee will continue their investigation to determine who is responsible for the operation despite Holder’s “flat refusal” to cooperate.
“We will try to find the truth,” Issa said.