U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. once again faced criticism about the botched Fast and Furious gun-trafficking sting during his testimony Tuesday on Capitol Hill, but this time, he didn't seem to mind the tone.
"I wouldn't say pleasant, but it's different," Holder said before a House Appropriations subcommittee, hinting at the contentious congressional questioning he's faced on the matter several times over the last few months.
"At its core, I tend to agree with you. The questions you're asking today and other people are asking are legitimate."
Holder appeared on Capitol Hill to testify about the Justice Department's proposed $27.1 billion budget for 2013, which he says will focus on financial crimes like health-care fraud and insider-trading cases. But the lawmakers took the the chance to grill him about the Defense of Marriage Act, the HHS requirement on contraception, and, for the seventh time by Holder's count, the Fast and Furious sting.
Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kansas) told Holder that legislators have "lost confidence" in Holder after federal agents let firearms travel to Mexico with the hope to track down bigger traffickers. Yoder pointed out that Holder and the DOJ are opposing language in a bill - approved in a 99-0 vote - that would require DOJ to follow policies that would prevent a similar sting operation in the future.
"There is a sense that the concerns being raised on the Hill are illegitimate," Yoder said, referring to DOJ's opposition to the bill.
Holder said the only opposition to the bill's language is that it is redundant to agency policies already in place.
Holder finished the discussion by saying he has never defended the Fast and Furious program, and slapped his hand on the table several times to emphasize his point. "Once this was brought to my attention, I stopped it," Holder testified. "I said, this is not the way we're going to conduct business. Stop it."
The last time he testified in February, Holder angrily confronted Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), calling it "among the worst things I've seen in Congress."
On Tuesday, in response to questioning on other topics, Holder said he anticipated a legal challenge to the controversial Health and Human Services mandate that health insurance cover birth control, which has riled religious leaders who have argued it infringes on their Constitutional freedoms.
"I don't know who would sue, but my guess is we would be in defense of that compromise," Holder said. "I don't think the rule that HHS promulgated was one that ran counter to religious prohibitions in the First Amendment."
The DOJ's 2013 budget remains essentially flat from last year, but will "bring our fight against financial fraud to a new level."
In just the last six months, Justice Department prosecutions have resulted in prison sentences of up to 60 years in a variety of fraud cases, obtained a conviction and record prison sentence in the largest hedge-fund insider-trading case in U.S. history, and secured lengthy prison terms for the architects of multimillion-dollar Ponzi schemes involving hundreds of investors, Holder said.
"But there is perhaps no better illustration of the effectiveness of our anti-fraud efforts than our recent work to combat health-care fraud," Holder told the committee. "Over the last fiscal year alone - in cooperation with the Department of Health and Human Services and other partners, and by utilizing authorities provided under the False Claims Act and other critical statutes - we were able to recover nearly $4.1 billion in funds that were stolen or taken improperly from federal health-care programs. This represents the highest amount ever recovered in a single year."
The DOJ also opened more than 1,100 new criminal health-care fraud investigations, secured more than 700 convictions, and initiated nearly 1,000 new civil health-care fraud investigations, Holder said.
Holder said that over the last three years, for every dollar the agency spent combating health-care fraud, its been able to return an average of seven dollars to the U.S. Treasury, the Medicare Trust Fund, and other and other government funds, Holder said.