By Richard A. Serrano, Tribune Washington Bureau –
WASHINGTON — Top House Republicans, saying the Justice Department is “out of excuses,” scheduled a committee vote to hold Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt of Congress for refusing to provide subpoenaed documents in the flawed Fast and Furious gun-tracking operation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The vote, scheduled in the Oversight and Government Reform Committee on June 20, sets the clock ticking toward a showdown between the GOP-led House and the Justice Department over a central question in the Fast and Furious debacle: Did senior Justice and White House officials know or approve of the program that lost thousands of assault rifles and other weapons on both sides of the Southwest Border?
For months, the committee, chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), has demanded that Holder comply with a series of subpoenas requesting Justice Department documents on Fast and Furious. Holder has not provided some of them, citing ongoing criminal cases in Arizona.
If the committee votes to hold Holder in contempt, the issue goes to the House for a vote. House approval would send the issue to U.S. attorney’s office in Washington or an independent counsel in an attempt to force the Justice Department to turn over the information to the committee.
On Monday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) gave the green light to a vote on contempt. “The Justice Department is out of excuses.” Boehner said. “Either the Justice Department turns over the information requested, or Congress will have no choice but to move forward with holding the attorney general in contempt for obstructing an ongoing investigation.”
Tracy Schmaler, chief spokeswoman for Holder, said Justice Officials have tried to work out a compromise with the committee, and called the ultimatum “unfortunate and unwarranted.”
“Chairman Issa has distorted the facts, ignored testimony and flung inaccurate accusations at the attorney general and others,” Schmaler said. This latest move fits within that tired political playbook that has so many American disillusioned with Washington.”
Schmaler said Holder already has stopped the gun-walking tactics under Fast and Furious, called for an inspector general’s investigation and “instituted reforms to prevent this from happening again.” Holder says the department has provided about 7,000 pages of material, but Issa has countered that much of those documents are meaningless and that 240,000 subpoenaed pages have not been turned over.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore, the top Democrat on the oversight committee, agreed that a contempt vote was “unfortunate.” He remained “guardedly optimistic” that a compromise could be reached.
The ATF’s Fast and Furious operation allowed illegal gun purchases so agents could track the weapons to Mexican drug cartel leaders. It was shut down after U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in December 2010, and two of the weapons were recovered.