Updated 12:49 p.m.
Congress is wading into the controversy surrounding the death of political activist Aaron Swartz, with top House oversight legislators asking the Department of Justice for a briefing in the federal case brought against the 26-year-old Internet entrepreneur.
The top Republican and Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee sent a joint letter to Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. late Monday afternoon that raises questions about whether the level of punishment that prosecutors sought for Swartz’s alleged offenses was appropriate.
The same questions have bounced around the Internet and media reports since the January 11 death Swartz, known in part for opposing two Internet-related censorship bills, including the Stop Online Piracy Act. It even prompted a hacking attack of the U.S. Sentencing Commission's website by the group Anonymous.
The letter signed by Representatives Darrel Issa (R-Calif.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) gives more heft to the lingering questions about the role of the DOJ in the events leading up to Swartz’s apparent suicide while facing time in prison for a cyber crime.
Issa and Cummings want to know the DOJ’s decision-making process regarding plea offers and sentencing proposals no later than Monday. Among the questions the lawmakers want to explore: Was Swartz’s opposition to SOPA or other advocacy groups a factor, and how did the plea offers in this case differ from similar prosecutions?
A DOJ spokeswoman said the agency would review the letter and will respond. In a statement released just after Swartz's death, Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz said that her office's conduct was appropriate.
Swartz was charged with four felonies accusing him of using computers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to gain illegal access to millions of scholarly papers kept by JSTOR, a subscription-only service, the letter states. While Swartz turned over hard drives and JSTOR declined to pursue the case, Ortiz declined to drop the charges.
If convicted, Swartz faced a maximum sentence of more than 30 years, although prosecutors offered him a deal that would have kept him behind bars for seven months. Press reports indicate that prosecutors told Swartz’s attorney that they would seek a prison sentence of seven years if the case went to trial, the letter states.