WASHINGTON — Republican House leaders have drafted a proposed contempt of Congress citation against Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. in which they charge that he and his Justice Department have repeatedly "obstructed and slowed" the Capitol Hill investigation into the ATF's flawed Fast and Furious gun-tracking operation.
The 48-page draft citation is being drawn up by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Top committee officials recently met for most of a day in the House speaker's office and were given the green light to proceed toward a contempt citation, according to sources who declined to be identified.
If adopted by the GOP-led House, the contempt resolution would be sent to the U.S. attorney's office in Washington or perhaps an independent counsel in an attempt to force the Justice Department to provide tens of thousands of internal documents to the committee.
A contempt resolution would also escalate a political feud between Issa and the Obama administration. Earlier this week Issa called the Obama White House "the most corrupt in government history." At a hearing in December, he compared Holder to disgraced Atty. Gen. John Mitchell from the President Nixon era, a comment that prompted Holder to fire back in language reminiscent of the bitter Senate hearings led by former Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.): "Have you no shame?"
Holder and other Justice Department officials insist they are cooperating with congressional investigators. Holder said the department had responded to more than three dozen letters from members of Congress and facilitated numerous witness interviews. The department has submitted or made available more than 6,400 pages of documents, he said.
"This has been a significant undertaking for department employees," Holder testified before the committee in February. "And our efforts in this regard remain ongoing."
Holder also cautioned that "the separation of powers concerns are particularly acute here," especially since there were still several "open criminal investigations and prosecutions" that resulted from the Fast and Furious case.
The operation — run by the Phoenix office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosivesfrom 2009 to early last year — allowed illegal gun purchases in hopes of tracking the weapons to Mexican drug cartel leaders. Instead, hundreds of guns vanished, and scores turned up at crime scenes in Mexico. Two were found where U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was shot to death south of Tucson in December 2010.
A number of illegal straw purchasers have been indicted, and two others are charged in Terry's slaying.
Issa and Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, contend that they have received far more documents from ATF whistle-blowers than have been turned over by the Justice Department.
"The department's refusal to work with Congress to ensure that such a mistake [as Fast and Furious] is never repeated is inexcusable and cannot stand," said a copy of the draft report obtained by the Los Angeles Times/Tribune Washington Bureau. "Those responsible for allowing Fast and Furious to proceed and those who are preventing the truth about the operation from coming out must be held accountable for their actions."
Holder has sharply denied that he or other Justice Department officials were aware that the ATF purposely allowed illegal weapons to circulate on the border. As soon as he learned of the "gun-walking tactics" used in Fast and Furious, he said, he called for a Justice Department inspector general investigation.
The contempt citation maneuver has been applied in the past. During the Clinton administration, the Republican-controlled House oversight panel voted Atty. Gen. Janet Reno in contempt for failing to comply with a subpoena related to campaign finance law violations. During the George W. Bush administration, the Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee and the full House voted two top administration officials in contempt for not cooperating in the scandal over the political firing of several U.S. attorneys.
Issa's draft report outlines evidence collected by the committee that contends some top Justice Department officials knew the ATF had allowed about 2,500 guns to be illegally purchased in Arizona — guns that were later "walked" to Mexican drug cartels.
The draft describes a 2010 meeting in the office of then-acting Deputy Atty. Gen. Gary G. Grindler in which charts were presented showing 31 people had illegally paid cash for 1,026 weapons. Also shown were the locations of "stash houses" before the weapons were moved to Mexico.
"Despite receiving all this information ... Grindler did not order Fast and Furious to be shut down, nor did he follow up with ATF or his staff about the investigation," the draft says.
Grindler, however, has told congressional investigators that he was not advised at the meeting about the unusual tactics used by ATF agents in allowing the guns to be illegally sold under Fast and Furious.