Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), under pressure from Republicans, said Wednesday that he is reassigning a staff member of a House subcommittee pending a review of charges that the employee violated California law by ordering the recording of a conversation with an attorney who is being probed by the committee.
The staff employee, J. Brian McTigue, “is being reassigned to other duties not associated with the subcommittee while we review the matter,” Dingell said in a short statement. Under California law, one person may not record a conversation with another person without the second party’s knowledge and consent.
For Dingell, the episode represented a rare interlude in a congressional career in which he has specialized in hard-hitting investigations. A Wall Street Journal editorial Wednesday titled “J. Edgar Dingell” accused him of “congressional abuses of power” in connection with the tape-recording incident.
On Monday, testimony before Dingell’s subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations revealed that William G. Bertain, a Eureka, Calif., lawyer, had been asked by McTigue to tape a phone call in his office with John Gibbons, a former assistant U.S. attorney in California and now a private investigator for Kroll Associates.
According to the testimony, Bertain had told McTigue that he believed Gibbons was misrepresenting himself as a member of the subcommittee, which is part of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Dingell chairs both the full committee and the subcommittee.
Bertain also suspected Gibbons of working for Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc., whose assistance in corporate takeover activities by underwriting high-yield “junk bonds” is being probed by the subcommittee, according to the testimony. Bertain represents plaintiffs seeking to overturn the Drexel-financed takeover of Pacific Lumber by Maxxam Group, an affiliate of MCO Corp.
On the strength of Bertain’s accusation that Gibbons had misrepresented himself, Dingell served Gibbons with a sweeping subpoena, demanding that he come to the committee with every scrap of documentation he had concerning some of Kroll’s biggest clients in the world of finance, mergers and acquisitions. Those included Drexel, speculator Ivan F. Boesky, MCO Corp. and affiliates, First Executive Corp. and affiliates and First Annuity Corp.
Gibbons refused to testify until he and his lawyers had a chance to review the evidence alleging that he had misrepresented himself. When the recording was played for the committee, it indicated that Gibbons had said he was working for Dingell’s panel. However, committee Republicans immediately criticized the recording, saying it clearly violated California law.
Dingell had ordered in advance an opinion from Steven R. Ross, general counsel to the clerk of the House, that would exonerate Bertain on the ground that he was acting as an unpaid voluntary investigator for the committee. On that basis, Ross’ opinion concluded, the Speech and Debate clause of the Constitution, which protects congressional speech from charges of illegality, could supersede California law.