The chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee gave panel members a draft of a contempt of Congress resolution against Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., citing the "refusal" of the nation's top prosecutor to cooperate in an investigation of the botched Fast and Furious gunrunning operation.
The 64-page draft resolution and an accompanying 17-page staff briefing paper explain what Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and committee chairman, called the "reckless conduct" of the Fast and Furious investigation and the "hardships" faced by the family of a U.S. Border Patrol agent killed with a weapon purchased in the probe.
The two documents also detail retaliation against agents who blew the whistle on the operation and the "carnage in Mexico" that Fast and Furious helped fuel.
"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," Mr. Issa said. "Operation Fast and Furious' outrageous tactics, the Justice Department's refusal to fully cooperate with the investigation and efforts to smear and retaliate against whistleblowers have tainted the institutional integrity of the Justice Department."
Fast and Furious was an attempt by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to allow "straw buyers" in Arizona to "walk" weapons into Mexico with a goal of tracking them to drug cartel leaders. But ATF lost track of hundreds of the weapons, nearly 600 of which have never been recovered.
Investigations by Mr. Issa and Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, found that ATF had allowed more than 2,000 weapons - including AK-47 assault rifles - to be "walked" to Mexican drug smugglers.
Two Romanian-made AK-47s purchased during the probe were found at the site of the December 2010 fatal shooting of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry, 40, who was killed just north of the Arizona border town of Nogales.
A Justice Department official on Thursday, as the agency has for the past several months, denied being uncooperative in the congressional probe, noting that Mr. Holder has testified seven times before various committees. The official said the department has handed over hundreds of pages of Fast and Furious documents and that any unreleased information was withheld to avoid politicizing or jeopardizing an ongoing investigation by the department's Office of Professional Responsibility.
Mr. Grassley noted Thursday that the Justice Department and Mr. Holder initially denied that gunwalking occurred, but they have since withdrawn the denials and admitted that ATF whistleblowers were right to complain about the tactic.
He said that despite the constitutional responsibility of Congress to conduct oversight of the executive branch, the Justice Department "stonewalled every step" of the Fast and Furious investigation. He said the department provided 80,000 pages of documents to its inspector general's office in connection with Fast and Furious, but only 6,000 pages of documents to Congress.
"The attorney general and the Justice Department are thumbing their nose at the constitutional authority provided to the legislative branch to conduct oversight," Mr. Grassley said, adding that Mr. Holder is facing a "real test of leadership."
"He can force the department to come clean, or he can force a high-stakes political conflict between the legislative and executive branches," he said.
Mr. Issa's committee held three hearings on Fast and Furious, conducted 24 transcribed interviews, sent the Justice Department more than 50 letters requesting information, and issued two subpoenas on the department for documents. But the chairman said the department continues to withhold documents he described as "critical" to understanding the decision-making and responsibility in Fast and Furious.
The draft resolution specifically charges that Mr. Holder has not properly complied with a subpoena issued Oct. 12 requesting documents in 22 categories.
"For over a year, the department has issued false denials, given answers intended to misdirect investigators, sought to intimidate witnesses, unlawfully withheld subpoenaed documents, and waited to be confronted with indisputable evidence before acknowledging uncomfortable facts," the resolution says.
The resolution says the committee wants to know who among the Justice Department's top brass should have known about the "reckless tactics" in Fast and Furious; how department leaders ended up figuring out the program was a bad idea; and how a special task force "failed" to share information that could have led to key gun-trafficking arrests.
It also notes that the "most damning assessments of the department's handling of the fallout" from Fast and Furious came from two Justice Department officials - Kenneth Melson, former acting ATF director, and Patrick Cunningham, who was tasked by Justice with investigating ATF whistleblower allegations of gunwalking.
It says Mr. Melson told Congress "it appears thoroughly to us that the department is really trying to figure out a way to push the information away from their political appointees at the department," and Mr. Cunningham invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination in refusing to answer questions about his work.
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