- - Wednesday, June 5, 2013


For President Obama, this is the summer of his discontent. Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat, a reliable supporter of the president, has had enough. He recently said: “In Watergate, Sen. [Howard] Baker said it all; everybody uses this: ‘What did he know, and when did he know it?’”

Forty years ago last month, the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities (aka the Senate Watergate Committee) launched it hearings. I was assistant majority counsel, working with Sen. Sam Ervin and Chief Counsel Sam Dash. Our committee had broad subpoena power, and when the people learned the facts, a president who had recently secured re-election by a resounding popular and electoral vote resigned. Sound familiar? The House of Representatives should appoint a select committee to investigate. That committee can clear the president, if that is where the evidence leads.

While each day brings us new scandals, earlier ones have not gone away. Remember, Fast and Furious, in which the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — in a stunning display of bad judgment — allowed weapons to be sold to drug cartel purchasers in Mexico. Field agents objected, but to no avail. Later, one of these guns killed a U.S. Border Patrol agent. Mr. Obama invoked executive privilege, so we still do not know the full story.

Then there is Benghazi, Libya, where terrorists affiliated with al Qaeda killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador. The Washington Post, a newspaper that has been a very strong supporter of the president, gave him “four Pinocchios” for claiming that he initially called it an act of terrorism. Instead, the administration blamed the attack on a YouTube video, which, it turns out, was a non-event in Benghazi. Recently released White House emails contradict claims by the president’s press secretary and then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that blamed the intelligence community for revising the talking points.

Now, we learn that the Internal Revenue Service, which Mr. Obama actually claimed is an “independent agency,” has been harassing groups that oppose the president’s policies. For example, someone in the IRS leaked confidential tax returns of a group that exercised its free-speech rights to support traditional marriage. The leaked tax returns contained the names and addresses of major donors to the National Organization for Marriage, thus allowing opponents to harass them. We know that someone at the IRS leaked the documents (a felony) because they contained internal IRS coding added after the organization submitted the returns. The administration claimed only lower-level IRS employees were involved, but lower-level employees say the directives came from Washington. What about Lois Lerner, who was in charge of the office that harassed these non-for-profits? She earned over $42,000 in bonuses during the period.

Then there is the Department of Justice official, Thomas E. Perez, who hid his efforts to arrange a secret quid pro quo between the City of St. Paul and the Department of Justice. The department agreed not to join two False Claims Act cases (a decision that cost the U.S. government up to $200 million) in exchange for the City of St. Paul withdrawing its case before the Supreme Court. That deal aided a private litigant and prevented the Supreme Court from deciding an important legal issue. Mr. Perez seemed more interested in helping this private party than in representing the United States, which happened to be his client. Moreover, the story Mr. Perez now tells does not easily fit within the emails thus far uncovered. The president has nominated Mr. Perez to be secretary of labor.

Then there is extensive Justice Department snooping on telephone records of The Associated Press and a Fox News reporter, apparently in violation of the department’s own internal rules. Mr. Rangel wants the president to explain the department’s secret review of two months of AP phone records and the IRS targeting of conservative groups.

The people need to know what the president knew and when he knew it. The House of Representatives should create this select committee because the Republicans control the House and can name a Republican to head it. That corresponds to the Watergate Committee, which a Democrat headed, because if a Democrat would give Nixon a clean bill of health, people would believe it. Recall that the first Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, was a Democrat, as was the second, Leon Jaworski. Such a select committee can bring back confidence to government.

Ronald D. Rotunda, a former assistant majority counsel for the Senate Watergate Committee, is a professor of jurisprudence at Chapman University in Orange, Calif.

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