Updated 2:45 p.m.
Months before the Operation Fast and Furious gun smuggling operation erupted into a partisan scandal, before the House found Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. in contempt of Congress for not producing documents, there was Jason Foster and his fondness for facts.
Foster, the chief investigative counsel for Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley on the Senate Judiciary Committee, says he has always liked those bits of hard, specific details that cut down spin and defy obfuscation.
That is why the self-proclaimed "truth junkie," who spent his childhood afternoons in rural Arkansas watching C-SPAN, has grown to love the emails of government workers, including some emails he found that are now playing a key role in uncovering the Department of Justice’s role in the botched, high-profile gun operation.
Foster, 40, says he has read hundreds of thousands of emails in the past 16 years as an oversight investigator on Capitol Hill, and many times, they've been the key to untangling huge government agencies. They give a person’s exact words, down to the minute.
"It's a real-time record of bureaucracy," Foster said.
Most recently, Foster and his team of four other investigators spent 18 months digging into whistleblower allegations about how U.S. Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents allowed guns to go to Mexico, one of which was later connected to the shooting death of an American border patrol agent Brian Terry.
In April 2011, Foster obtained emails from a cooperating gun dealer to ATF agents, saying that he had friends in the border patrol and didn’t want any of them getting hurt. ATF responded to the dealer and encouraged him to continue cooperating, providing reassurance that the ATF could effectively monitor the guns.
Those emails, authored in 2010, and a floor speech about them from Grassley, helped propel the investigation into the spotlight.
And then there are at least 13 different email exchanges related to Fast and Furious that Foster and his team have requested but the DOJ has not turned over – part of the reason House Republicans voted to find Holder in contempt of Congress last month.
Foster disagrees with Democrats who argue that Republicans are pursuing the investigation of Holder primarily for political reasons, and that the Department of Justice has gone out of their way to provide Fast and Furious documents.
"They’re being very vague in what they’re withholding, they're refusing to even give us a general description of what they’re withholding and why," Foster said. "They want to hold all the cards, and that’s not what complying with a subpoena means."
Foster's boss, Grassley, has been a vocal supporter of the House push to hold Holder in contempt. Foster says he has generally agreed with the more conservative view all his life, even when watching debate program Crossfire as a child. But he says that in investigations, his focus is the facts — whatever happened, happened — and he finds it frustrating that the issue has been politicized.
Foster never considered a career on Captiol Hill, although he was fascinated by the confirmation hearings of Robert Bork when he was in high school in Russelville, Ark. In high school, he drove two hours to see Bork speak at nearby Harding University.
The son of an auto mechanic and a doctor's office receptionist, Foster decided to go to Georgetown University Law Center because it was in Washington. After receiving his law degree, he interviewed at firms and didn’t find a good fit, but was happy to land a job as a legislative assistant. Less than a year later, he was selected to be part of Indiana GOP Rep. Dan Burton’s investigation into possible Democratic Party campaign finance abuse during the 1996 presidential election. It was Foster's first taste of Congressional oversight, creating a database of phone and bank records and trying to draw connections between them, and he ended up staying for six years.
Foster, who lives in Virginia with his wife and three children, then worked for two years as senior counsel on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and nearly six years as senior investigative counsel on the Senate Finance Committee.
During those years, Foster said he has learned that getting answers from government bureaucracies means not taking no for an answer and having the experience to know when agency officials are misleading you.
Foster worked on the second review of the ATF and Federal Bureau of Investigation siege of a compound in Waco that ended in a gun battle and a fire that killed 75 people. He interviewed members of the hostage rescue team that were there at the siege, so he balks when the DOJ or other agencies tell Foster that he can’t interview individual agents.
Now, Foster says he has found a good boss in Grassley and a good spot for doing the kind of work that requires digging for those facts. "I love it," Foster said. "It's never dull."
Know of a Hill attorney who would be interesting to read about? Send suggestions to Todd Ruger at firstname.lastname@example.org.