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Conyers Defends Outside Counsels

House Republicans and the White House bristled Wednesday at a decision by House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) to bring in three private-sector attorneys to oversee the committee’s ongoing investigation into the controversial firing of eight U.S. attorneys, even as Conyers said the move was guided more by economics than politics.

It is cheaper for the panel to contract out some of its staff needs rather than hire additional full-time counsel, Conyers said, noting that it is not unusual for committees to do so. “We don’t have the money to hire more full-time staff,” Conyers said. “It’s a function of economy and efficiency. … I’ve done it before.”

Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the second-ranking Democrat on Judiciary, concurred. “If you have a couple of investigations that are going to take a while, it makes more sense than hiring a ton of full-time staffers,” he said.

In a statement, Conyers further explained the decision: “Given the very serious issues raised by the U.S. Attorneys investigation, and the extraordinary level of activities and legislation the committee is otherwise involved in on a day-to-day basis, it was necessary that we obtain additional support on the matter for a limited period of time.”

Judiciary ranking member Lamar Smith (R-Texas) declined to comment on the move. However, former Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), now the second-ranking Republican, said if it was a matter of finances, the job should be left up to the panel’s full-time investigative staff.

“We do not need to hire outside counsel for this,” Sensenbrenner said. “It’s part of the regular oversight plan that’s been adopted by the committee.”

The Wisconsin lawmaker said he had no recollection of ever tapping outside counsel to assist with the panel’s investigative duties, but he also said Conyers has done so in the past.

Sensenbrenner said he believes it violates the spirit of the long-held two-thirds/one-third practice that provides one-third of committee resources to the minority. By hiring outside counsel who are not part of the committee roster, the majority is expanding its investigative power while the minority’s remains limited. “This is a broken promise,” Sensenbrenner said.

A spokeswoman for the committee majority said the panel employs nine full-time counsels who cover the entire jurisdictional breadth of the panel. The contracted lawyers will be able to focus singularly on the U.S. attorney’s investigation that has put intense scrutiny on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Conyers said the additional counsel will “assist Members of the Committee and staff with the massive task of sorting through thousands upon thousands of pages of material, help us assess the issues raised by claims of executive privilege and assertions by administration officials of Fifth Amendment rights, and help us in our efforts to get to the bottom of this growing U.S. Attorney scandal.”

The deal was first reported Tuesday in The Washington Times, which detailed a contractual agreement allowing Judiciary to pay the attorneys up to $25,000 per month but no more than $225,000 through Dec. 31, 2007, for their services.

A Democratic aide familiar with the deal cautioned that the dollar figures and December date are “maximums” and said the panel could conclude the inquiry much earlier.

“We do not expect the investigation to go beyond a few months,” the aide said. “And during those months, we may not expend the full monthly amount.”

The three outside attorneys are Irvin Nathan, a partner at the law firm Arnold & Porter, and Michael Zeldin and David Gilles, both of the firm Deloitte & Touche.

Nathan served as principal associate deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration under Attorney General Janet Reno. He did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

Zeldin is a former independent counsel and once worked at the Justice Department. Gilles currently is the director of his firm’s anti-money laundering practice.

A Judiciary spokesman said the money will come out of the panel’s allotted budget. A House resolution approved earlier this year provides Judiciary with a $16.3 million operational budget for the 110th Congress, with just more than $8 million allotted for the first session and more than $8.2 million allotted for the second session. The budget is approximately $300,000 less than what Conyers and Smith requested.

Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) called the move a “waste of taxpayer dollars” but acknowledged that it is within Conyers’ purview as chairman to do so. “He can do it, but he’ll have to take the heat for it,” Boehner said.

White House Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino accused Democrats of caring “more about investigations than legislation. … Instead of funding show trials, the Democrats should show they care about passing a responsible budget and giving our military commanders in Iraq the resources they need to win.” She added, “We look forward to the House Judiciary Committee’s disclosure of its bidding process for awarding this taxpayer-funded contract.”

Details of the contract will be made publicly available via the House Administration Committee, which is required to approve such contracts and make “available for public inspection a copy of the qualifications of each consultant.”

A House Administration aide said Judiciary will have to submit a packet to the committee detailing the contract and its purpose, and generally includes the résumés of the hired outside consultants.

The contract cannot go into effect until the panel approves the agreement.

Generally, contracts are approved via a poll of House Administration’s members and agreed to by unanimous consent that does not require a formal committee meeting. If there is objection, the panel would have to meet for an organizational meeting to vote on the contract. If that were to occur, the contract likely would be approved by the panel’s 6-3 Democratic advantage.

Republicans have not yet said if they will object to the contract. At press time, the panel had not received the packet for approval.

According to guidelines available on the House Administration Committee’s Web site, no contract can exceed 12 months, or the end of the Congress, whichever comes first. Outside consultants are not considered employees of the committee, but they are subject to certain ethics rules, and they cannot be paid more than the highest paid committee staffer’s “per diem” salary.

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