Congress Votes Attorney General Eric Holder in Criminal Contempt

Katie Pavlich

6/28/2012 4:41:00 PM - Katie Pavlich

UPDATE II: The House has voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in civil contempt, in addition to criminal contempt. Twenty-one Democrats voted with Republicans for civil contempt. Civil contempt will allow the Oversight Committee to proceed with their quest for documents in front of a judge, rather than simply relying on the U.S. Attorney in Washington D.C. to assess the charge. More:

Legal scholars say there is no practical way for Congress to get the documents except to go to court.

That will put a spotlight not only on Holder but also on his boss, President Barack Obama, who has claimed he can withhold the documents under executive privilege.

"The contempt citation will go away," said Todd Peterson, a law professor at George Washington University.

"Congress will probably file a lawsuit, in part hoping to find some judicial support but more because it's just another way to publicize the president's refusal to comply with their demands for documents," Peterson said.

Failure to obey a potential court order on the documents would expose Holder to a more serious contempt of court charge, though few expect it to come to that.

UPDATE: White House responds to House holding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt, calling it a "transparently political stunt."

At the beginning of this year, Republicans announced one of their top priorities was to investigate the Administration and to ensure that President Obama was a one-term President. Despite the major economic challenges facing the country, they talked openly about devoting taxpayer-funded, Congressional oversight resources to political purposes.

The problem of gunwalking was a field-driven tactic that dated back to the George W. Bush Administration, and it was this Administration’s Attorney General who ended it. Attorney General Holder has said repeatedly that fighting criminal activity along the Southwest Border – including the illegal trafficking of guns to Mexico has been is a top priority of the Department. Eric Holder has been an excellent Attorney General and just yesterday the Chairman of the House Oversight Committee acknowledged that he had no evidence – or even the suspicion – that the Attorney General knew of the misguided tactics used in this operation.

Yet, Republicans pushed for political theater rather than legitimate Congressional oversight. Over the past fourteen months, the Justice Department accommodated Congressional investigators, producing 7,600 pages of documents, and testifying at eleven Congressional hearings. In an act of good faith, this week the Administration made an additional offer which would have resulted in the Committee getting unprecedented access to documents dispelling any notion of an intent to mislead. But unfortunately, a politically-motivated agenda prevailed and instead of engaging with the President in efforts to create jobs and grow the economy, today we saw the House of Representatives perform a transparently political stunt.

In case you're wondering, most of the 7,600 documents cited in the above statement, look like this:

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After 18 months of investigation and non-responses to Congressional subpoenas about Operation Fast and Furious, the House of Representatives has voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in criminal contempt. The vote was bipartisan with 17 Democrats voting with Republicans. The final vote tally was 255 yeas, 67 nays and 110 members didn't vote. Many members of the Congressional Black Caucus and Democrats walked out of the vote in protest. Holder is the first sitting attorney general to be held in contempt and the first sitting cabinet member to be held in contempt. The criminal contempt charge will now move to the U.S. Attorney in Washington D.C. for review.

Chairman of the House Oversight Committee Darrell Issa offered to delay or cancel the contempt vote today, so long as Attorney General Eric Holder delivered 1300 documents as part of compliance with a 22 part October 2011 subpoena regarding Operation Fast and Furious. After a series of last minute meetings and efforts to prevent the vote, Holder failed to deliver those documents and the House proceeded as planned.


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“The Terry Family wants to know how this happened and they have every right to know. And the House needs to know what happened," Speaker John Boehner said. “No Justice Department is above the law.”

Holder responded by listing the things he sees as positive developments during his tenure as attorney general and said, "As a result of the action today taken by the House, an unnecessary battle will ensure.” Holder also called the vote "a disservice to the American people.”

Debate about the contempt citation on the House floor before the vote was tense, with accusations of a "political witch hunt" being hurled from the mouths of Democrats toward Republicans. Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi called the vote "heinous" while Democrat Steny Hoyer said it was an "irresponsible day for the House of Representatives" and that "this investigation has been extraordinarily superficial."

"Let me be crystal clear about what my motivation is here, we have a dead border patrol agent. We have more than 200 dead Mexicans.” Republican Jason Chaffetz said. “This is not about Eric Holder, this is about the Department of Justice and justice in the United States of America......I want all the facts, that is what we are asking for today, the facts.”

Issa made it clear that he will continue to investigate Operation Fast and Furious, despite Holder's continued refusal to cooperate and has issued an official statement.

“Today, a bipartisan majority of the House of Representatives voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt for his continued refusal to produce relevant documents in the investigation of Operation Fast and Furious. This was not the outcome I had sought and it could have been avoided had Attorney General Holder actually produced the subpoenaed documents he said he could provide.

“The Congressional inquiry into Operation Fast and Furious, and the cover-up by Justice Department officials of wrongdoing, has been a fair and fact based investigation.  False and partisan allegations by the White House and some congressional Democrats about the Oversight Committee’s efforts were undermined by the votes of 17 Democrats.  These Members resisted the pressure of their own leadership and the Obama Administration to support this investigation on the House floor.

“Claims by the Justice Department that it has fully cooperated with this investigation fall at odds with its conduct:  issuing false denials to Congress when senior officials clearly knew about gunwalking, directing witnesses not to answer entire categories of questions, retaliating against whistleblowers, and producing only 7,600 documents while withholding over 100,000.

“I greatly appreciate the ongoing efforts of Senator Chuck Grassley, his staff, and other Senators on the Judiciary Committee who have pressed the Obama Administration for the full truth.  Senator Grassley began this investigation and has been a full partner throughout it.  I must also recognize the hard work done by many of my colleagues here in the House – without their efforts the Justice Department’s stonewalling would have succeeded.

“My message to my colleagues and others who have fought for answers:  We are still fighting for the truth and accountability – for the family of murdered Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, for whistleblowers who have faced retaliation, and for countless victims of Operation Fast and Furious in Mexico.  Unless President Obama relents to this bipartisan call for transparency and an end to the cover-up, our fight will move to the courts where we will prevail in getting the documents that the Justice Department and President Obama’s flawed assertion of executive privilege have denied the American people.”

Update: The Romney camp recently released the following statement.

"Governor Romney supports the vote to hold Attorney General Holder in contempt of congress."