Published: Wednesday July 25, 2007
The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday formally recommended criminal contempt charges against former White House counsel Harriet Miers and chief of staff Joshua Bolten for their failure to comply with an investigation into the firing of eight US Attorneys.
The charges were presented in a resolution that, if passed by the House as a whole, would present a case for criminal proceedings to the US Attorney for the District of Columbia. But the justice department has said it will not purse the charges because the White House has invoked executive privilege. The House Judiciary Committee voted 22-17 along party lines to send the Democratic measure to the full House, which The Associated Press reported is expected to consider the citation after its August recess..
Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., introduced the resolution accompanied by a 52-page report outlining the criminal charges against the administration officials.
The hearing also brought harsh denunciations of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who Democrats accused of obfuscating his own role in the attorney firing scandal.
"They have sent the Attorney General here to lie and to insult us with his lies," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.
Republicans sought to convince members of the majority not to get involved in a prolonged constitutional fight over executive privilege and accused Democrats of pursuing a partisan witch-hunt without basis in facts.
Democrats argued the contempt filing was necessary because of the utter disrespect with which the White House treated members of the committee. There is no legal basis for a witness subpoenaed by Congress to simply refuse to show up for a hearing, as Harriet Miers did when she was called to testify earlier this month.
"We have rolled over with every claim of executive privilege," said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Fla., who called Miers snub of the committee "beyond the pale."
Judiciary Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., said the contempt charges were being sought "only as a last resort."
"What I am not open to is accepting a take-it-or leave it offer, which would not allow us access to the information we need ... this is the only proposal we have received from White House counsel," Conyers said.
Ranking Member James Sensenbrenner said he thought the White House would prevail in court against criminal charges. Instead, he suggested a civil lawsuit that would focus narrowly on the claim of executive privilege in this particular case.
Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, said Democrats on the committee have offered no evidence of corruption and should not file contempt charges until they can prove inappropriate conduct within the White House. The amendment failed on a 14-23 party-line vote.
Conyers said the lack of evidence was the fault of the White House for not cooperating, and said that is exactly why the charges were being filed.
"We can't get to the evidence before we get to the witnesses and the documents that we've requested," Conyers said.
President Bush has invoked executive privilege in refusing to allow Miers to appear before the committee. She did not show up to testify when called July 12; Bolton has refused to hand over White House documents sought by Democrats on the committee.
Republicans said Bush is entitled to confidential advice from his aides, and Congress does not have the right to subvert their ability to have private conversations with advisers.
Conyers said the president has yet to "personally" invoke privilege and reminded the committee that testimony has yet to reveal whether Bush was directly involved in the decisions leading to the attorneys being fired.
The White House has offered to allow Miers to testify before the committee behind closed doors but refused to allow for a transcript of the proceedings.
If the full House approves the contempt charges, Miers and Bolton are still unlikely to face any criminal penalties. The Justice Department on Tuesday informed the committee that it would not pursue criminal contempt charges against White House officials when executive privilege is invoked.
Brian A. Benczkowski, principal deputy assistant attorney general, sent a letter to Conyers citing the department's "long-standing" position, "articulated during administrations of both parties, that the criminal contempt of Congress statute does not apply to the president or presidential subordinates who assert executive privilege," according to The Associated Press.