House Democrats are preparing a new line of investigation into Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, suggesting that as White House counsel, Gonzales allowed staff members to continue using Republican National Committee e-mail accounts to conduct official government business, in violation of the Presidential Records Act.
The new allegation against Gonzales is part of a report released Monday by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, summarizing the investigation to date into RNC e-mail accounts maintained by White House officials.
Republicans argue that Democrats have no evidence to support such a charge, and that the investigation is becoming a waste of time. In response to a question about Waxman’s report on Monday, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said, “We’ve seen a number of times right now where people have been putting together investigations to see what sticks. They have had very little success so far. This is an administration that is very careful about obeying the law.”
Waxman began investigating RNC e-mail accounts when it became clear that White House officials had used RNC accounts to discuss disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the firing of U.S. attorneys and a briefing given at the General Services Administration by a White House political deputy.
In response to subpoenas issued by the Oversight Committee, the RNC has provided the panel with data on the number of White House e-mail accounts, the number of messages those accounts cover and the number of e-mails the RNC has retained.
According to Waxman’s report, 88 White House officials including top political adviser Karl Rove, former Chief of Staff Andy Card and former political director Ken Mehlman maintained RNC e-mail accounts while working at the White House, but many of the e-mails sent and received over these accounts have not been retained by the RNC. Waxman claims, for example, that none of Mehlman’s e-mails have been preserved by the RNC.
Waxman’s committee has a 2001 memo from then-counsel Gonzales reminding White House staff that electronic communications related to official business must be preserved and that staff members “must only use the authorized e-mail system for all official electronic communications.”
Susan Ralston, Karl Rove’s former assistant, told the committee in May that she and Rove searched his RNC e-mail accounts for messages responsive to investigations of Enron and the vice president’s Energy task force, and turned those results over to the Counsel’s Office. Waxman’s committee therefore concludes that Gonzales “may have been aware in 2001 that Mr. Rove was using RNC accounts for official communications. Yet it was not until six years later [March of this year] that the White House wrote to the RNC instructing it to preserve any ‘emails or documents that may relate to the official business of the Executive office of the president that may be in the possession of the RNC.’”
Republicans argue that since the RNC has not yet produced actual e-mails, Waxman does not know that official business was being discussed in those messages. “None of this matters until we actually search them,” one Republican staffer said.
RNC spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt said in an e-mail: “It is troubling that Henry Waxman’s committee jumped the gun and appears to be representing Democrats’ partisan spin as ‘fact.’ Not only have we been clear that we are continuing our efforts to search for emails, but there is no basis for an assumption that any email not already found would be of an official nature,” she said.
Snow said during his daily press briefing that the White House staff e-mail accounts at the RNC “were set up … on a model based on the prior administration, which had done it the same way, in order to try to avoid Hatch Act violations … these were designed precisely to avoid Hatch Act violations that prohibit the use of government assets for certain political activities.”
An RNC staffer said there is no reason to assume that Gonzales would have known that staff was using RNC accounts to conduct official business because that was not what the counsel was looking for in those investigations.
But a Democratic source said that is irrelevant — the fact that the accounts exist and that Gonzales apparently saw results of the search of those accounts indicates that he knew White House officials were using outside accounts and did not take steps to prevent them from using those accounts for official business.
The Waxman report also threatens subpoenas against the Bush-Cheney ’04 presidential campaign, saying that the campaign has told the committee that White House staff did have “bc04” e-mail addresses but has not identified who those staff members were or provided statistical information about the traffic in those accounts.
Eric Kuwana, the counsel to the Bush-Cheney ’04 Committee, issued a statement Monday saying, “BC ‘04’s documents and information are from a limited period of time years ago, have no articulated connection to the investigations of the committee, and very well may be the type and nature of political documents that are specifically exempt from the Presidential Records Act.”
Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the ranking member of the committee who has said that the subject matter of Waxman’s investigation represented “legitimate exercises of the committee’s oversight authority,” blasted the Democratic report. “Instead of going carefully through the evidence and arriving at well-supported conclusions, the Democrats missed the mark with today’s report. We see the words ‘may have’ eight times in a 12-page report. We see Karl Rove mentioned 42 times. We see Attorney General Alberto Gonzales dragged into this matter without any foundation whatsoever. Everything about this report overreaches and prejudges,” Davis said in a statement.
Davis said Waxman is overlooking the fact that the White House and the RNC have been cooperating with his investigation, and “the Bush-Cheney ’04 campaign committee has explained that it has limited resources to respond because it ceased operations more than two years ago.”
But Senate Democrats jumped behind Waxman’s work. Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) issued a statement praising Waxman’s report. “It is troubling that so many senior White House officials, including Karl Rove and his former deputy Sara Taylor, were engaging in an effort to avoid oversight and accountability by ignoring the laws meant to ensure a public record of official government business,” Leahy said. “This extensive end-run around the laws leads one to wonder what these officials wanted to hide from the public and Congress.”
Leahy indicated that he expects Taylor and Rove to cull those e-mail accounts for messages relating to the firing of at least eight U.S. attorneys last year.
In a related step, Senate Judiciary members Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) asked the Justice Department inspector general to investigate whether Tim Griffin, who was appointed to replace one of the fired prosecutors, was involved in voter suppression activities when he worked for the RNC in 2004. The concern is based on an e-mail that the committee received from Griffin’s 2004 RNC e-mail account, the Senators said.