Updated 6:13 p.m.
Republicans have long threatened to bring contempt of Congress charges against Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. in connection with the Department of Justice’s botched Fast and Furious gun-trafficking sting. Now they say they have taken the first step.
The Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), on Thursday sent out a 44-page draft of proposed contempt charges against Holder to the other members of the committee and said it would be discussed at an upcoming hearing.
“This briefing paper and draft contempt report explains the case, to both Members of the Committee and the American people, for holding Attorney General Holder in contempt of Congress,” Issa said in a press release.
The charges are still a draft and no action has been taken. The draft charges say that Holder is in contempt of Congress for failure to comply with a congressional subpoena for DOJ documents, and Issa writes that he has exhausted all other available options to obtain compliance.
“The Department’s refusal to work with Congress to ensure that it has fully complied with the Committee’s efforts to compel the production of documents and information related to this controversy is inexcusable and cannot stand,” the draft charges read. “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.”
According to Issa, an October 2011 subpoena required the DOJ to produce documents in 22 categories related to Fast and Furious, the operation in which federal agents allowed straw purchasers to buy firearms in the United States and transport them to Mexico.
But DOJ has not produced any responsive documents for 12 of the 22 categories and not completely fulfilled the subpoena in the other 10 categories. Within the past fifteen years, the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has undertaken or prepared for contempt proceedings on multiple occasions, the draft charges state.
Through a spokesperson who issued a statement "from a DOJ official" on condition that the unnamed official not be identified by name, the DOJ strongly denies the claims. Holder has testified about the sting before Congress seven times and the DOJ has produced more than 7,600 pages to the committee.
In a letter to Issa last month, DOJ Asistant Attorney General Ronald Weich wrote that the type of information not being released, like transcripts of grand jury proceedings and other sensitive law enforcement materials, have has historically not been released because it is not appropriate for further disclosure.
"We intend to continue our rolling production schedule until we have accomodated the committee's information needs to the fullest extent possible," Weich wrote.
A letter to Issa from Deputy Attorney General James Cole, released this afternoon, restates those points.
In the Fast and Furious operation, federal agents let firearms travel to Mexico with the hope to track down bigger traffickers, and may have led to the death of a U.S. Border Patrol agent.
Holder has testified on Capitol Hill this year that he has never defended the Fast and Furious program. "Once this was brought to my attention, I stopped it," Holder testified.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, voiced his approval for Issa’s work and his move forward on contempt. “The subpoena authority of the House Oversight Committee, and the chairman’s willingness to use it, helped shed light on Operation Fast and Furious and the Justice Department’s desire to allow guns to walk into the hands of Mexican drug cartels,” Grassley said in a written statement. “The attorney general and the Justice Department are thumbing their nose at the constitutional authority provided to the legislative branch to conduct oversight.”
But Rep. Elijiah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking minority party on the House oversight committee, said Issa was straining to generate press coverage for political purposes.
“Holding someone in contempt is one of the most serious actions Congress can take, but it is being used in this case as part of a partisan election year witch-hunt,” Cummings said. “Unsurprisingly, these draft contempt documents were leaked to the press and Republican House leaders before Committee Members ever saw them, and are based on an investigation characterized by repeated claims that turned out to be false.”
A copy of the draft charges and a memorandum written by Issa can be found here.