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House, Justice Close to Deal On Cunningham Subpeonas

Seeking to head off a potentially nasty legal battle, House Democrats appear to be on the path to a deal with the Justice Department in which they would turn over reams of documents from the Appropriations, Armed Services and Intelligence committees subpoenaed as part of the probe into jailed ex-Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.).

The U.S. attorney’s office in San Diego subpoenaed the then-chairmen of the three panels on Dec. 22 and set a Jan. 11 deadline for compliance. But with the switch in party control of the House, the new Democratic chairmen said that deadline was impossible to meet. Instead, the parties agreed on a Jan. 31 timeframe.

Although it looks like that deadline also will elapse without House compliance, a Democratic leadership aide indicated the House counsel, whose office has been handling the case, and the Justice Department are expected to reach an agreement soon. The House counsel’s office did not return a call for comment.

“An agreement on the whole issue is close,” said the aide on Tuesday. “The office of the general counsel remains in negotiations over the terms of the agreement with the U.S. attorney.”

The Justice Department attempted to get the panels to voluntarily turn over the relevant documents when the House was under Republican control. But lack of consensus led to the subpoenas and a stepped-up legal fight.

Neither the Justice Department nor the U.S. attorney’s office would comment on Tuesday.

The request from the U.S. attorney’s office for thousands of pages of documents is related to an ongoing federal grand jury probe stemming from the Cunningham case. Cunningham pleaded guilty in 2005 to receiving $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors and is serving an eight-year-plus prison sentence.

The Bush administration recently requested the resignation of San Diego U.S. Attorney Carol Lam, who spearheaded the Cunningham probe, and she is slated to leave her job by Feb. 15. The probe appears to be focused on ties between former Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis’ (R-Calif.) work and the connections with the lobbying firm of former Rep. Bill Lowery (R-Calif.).

Lewis had no comment on the subpoenas Tuesday.

The delay in handing over the documents could hamper Lam if she was seeking to secure indictments before she leaves office in roughly two weeks.

If House Democrats do reach a deal with prosecutors, they would avoid a potentially ugly legal fight. The House could choose to argue the documents are protected under the Speech or Debate Clause, which protects Members from prosecution for their legislative acts.

Additionally, according to the Congressional Record, two staffers also have been served with subpoenas regarding the Cunningham matter: Rebecca Kuhn, formerly Cunningham’s executive assistant who most recently worked for former Rep. Chris Chocola (R-Ind.). She has left Capitol Hill and now works as an executive assistant for former Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) at PhRMA.

Elizabeth Phillips, a former staffer for the Appropriations subcommittee on Defense, also was served with a subpoena.

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