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House Judiciary Subpoenas DOJ

The House Judiciary Committee issued a subpoena Tuesday to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, demanding that his embattled department turn over new or unedited versions of documents related to the U.S. attorneys scandal.

The subpoena is the first to be issued in the clash between the Bush administration and Justice Department, though House and Senate Democrats have been threatening to subpoena witnesses. And comments by a Justice Department spokesman in a statement Tuesday afternoon suggested that the department may not comply, potentially setting the stage for a lengthy legal battle.

“Because there are individual privacy interests implicated by publicly releasing this information, it is unfortunate the Congress would choose this option,” spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said. “In light of these concerns, we will continue to work closely with Congressional staff and we still hope and expect that we will be able to reach an accommodation with the Congress.”

Meanwhile, the Judiciary Committee has passed a procedural hurdle to finalize Chairman John Conyers’ (D-Mich.) decision to bring in three private sector lawyers to lead the panel’s investigation into the U.S. attorney firings.

On March 27, the House Administration Committee unanimously approved the contract agreement drafted by Conyers that authorizes payments of up to $25,000 per month, but no more than $225,000 through the end of the year, for the investigators. A Democratic aide close to the panel said recently they do not expect the probe to last more than “a few months.”

Republican leaders and senior members of the committee, including former Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), have criticized Conyers’ decision, but Republicans on the House Administration panel did not object to the contract agreement.

A GOP aide on that committee said the panel does not determine the merits of individual agreements but only ensures that they meet the requirements outlined by committee rules for hiring independent contractors.

The three attorneys who will be heading up the investigation 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 former Attorney General Janet Reno. 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.

The House Judiciary Committee subpoena demands the Justice Department documents by 2 p.m. on April 16, one day before Gonzales is scheduled to testify about the prosecutor firings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Several Senators, including some Republicans, have called for Gonzales’ resignation because of the scandal.

Congressional Democrats are aggressively investigating why the Justice Department fired eight U.S. attorneys last year, at first explaining the move largely was related to weak job performance and then suggesting that term may have been misinterpreted. Democrats contend that the administration explanations have been misleading and incomplete and that the firings appear to be politically motivated.

Conyers and the Justice Department have been sparring via letters for more than a month about the type and content of documents turned over to Congress.

“Our staffs have spent much time discussing our respective positions, without success,” Conyers wrote in a letter to Gonzales accompanying the subpoena.

“Unfortunately, the department has not indicated any meaningful willingness to find a way to meet our legitimate needs, and at this point, further delay in receiving these materials will not serve any constructive purpose,” Conyers stated.

Of the some 3,400 pages that Justice already has submitted to the committee about the scandal, some of that information has been redacted. And some of that has been available only to Members directly or staff for private viewing at the Justice Department with no note-taking or copies allowed.

In his letter to Gonzales, Conyers argued that the department cannot legitimately withhold information regarding U.S. attorneys considered for the firing hit list or potential replacement candidates. He called that information “clearly relevant” to the inquiry.

Conyers also contends that information generated in response to Congressional and media requests after the scandal broke also is necessary for the committee to do its work.

Furthermore, he requests “complete electronic information” in the form of data files, spreadsheets and instant messages that may be attached to printed materials, rather than just copies of the printed documents.

“I look forward to your timely compliance so that we can proceed with getting the truth in these matters,” Conyers ends.

But acting Assistant Attorney General Richard Hertling, in a March 26 letter to Conyers, argued it would be “deeply unfair” to prosecutors who were not ultimately dismissed to air internal deliberations over their performance and potential replacement. Hertling said these prosecutors have no involvement in the controversy and further argued their reputations would be “maligned unnecessarily” with such disclosure.

In regards to material generated by the inquiry, Hertling said Justice has only withheld those documents unrelated to the providing of inaccurate or misleading testimony to Congress by Justice Department officials. He labeled the withheld information as “confidential” in nature.

“We believe there would be a substantial inhibiting effect on future informal communications between agencies and Congressional Representatives … if informal communications were to be produced in the normal course of Congressional oversight,” Hertling wrote.

Meanwhile, key Senate Democrats — including Wisconsin Sens. Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold — wrote a letter Tuesday to Gonzales seeking documents in connection to a prosecution by a Wisconsin U.S. attorney that was just overturned by a federal appeals court because of weak evidence.

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