Tuesday, March 27, 2007

House Democrats are set tomorrow to bring in private sector lawyers — at a cost of up to $225,000 over the next nine months — to help committee staff investigate the Bush administration.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat, has drawn up a contract with Washington law firm Arnold & Porter for help in his investigation of the firing of eight federal prosecutors last year, according to an unsigned copy of the contract obtained by The Washington Times.

The contract specifies that Arnold & Porter will subcontract with another firm, Deloitte & Touche, to “assist Democratic members of the Committee on the Judiciary with issues related to the termination of U.S. attorneys by the Bush administration, possible misrepresentations to Congress, interfering with investigations and matter related thereto.”

The House Judiciary Committee already has as many as 30 paid staff positions, not including staff of subcommittees, aides said.

The committee’s contract is for a sum “not to exceed $25,000 per month, plus authorized traveling expenses,” and is set to expire Dec. 31, 2007.

The contract specifies that Irvin B. Nathan, a partner at Arnold & Porter, will be “principally responsible” for the contract.

The contract also specifies that two Deloitte & Touche employees — Michael Zeldin, a former independent special prosecutor in the early 1990s, and David K. Gilles, a former Treasury Department official — will become part of the House investigation.

Republicans denounced the move as “scandal-mongering.”

“It doesn’t take a quarter-million dollars and an army of lawyers to conclude that U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president, unless you’re a Democrat with a political dog-and-pony show to produce,” said Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.

“If the goal is to distract from the fact that Democrats have no long-term agenda, they’re going to need an outside PR firm, not lawyers,” Mr. Kennedy said.

Rep. Rahm Emmanuel, Illinois Democrat, defended Mr. Conyers’ decision.

“He has said to the White House, ‘We want the truth. Help us,’” said Mr. Emmanuel, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus. “Our goal here is to get to the truth, and every day is a new day when it comes to the White House and their story.”

A judiciary committee spokesman did not return a request for comment.

The White House also declined to comment.

Rep. Henry Waxman, California Democrat, who has headed countless investigations as chairman of the oversight and government reform committee, said he could not recall ever paying for outside legal help.

“We usually rely on staff,” Mr. Waxman said.

Mr. Conyers, a 21-term congressman, heads one of two congressional committees that is currently investigating President Bush’s firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year.

Democrats and some Republicans in Congress have questioned accounts by Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and the Justice Department of why and how the prosecutors were fired. No criminal actions have been uncovered, but Mr. Conyers has publicly suggested that one of the fired prosecutors may have been removed to derail a federal corruption probe into Republican lawmakers.

Carol Lam, the former U.S. attorney in California’s southern district, prosecuted former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, California Republican, for taking $2.4 million in bribes.

Mrs. Lam’s office also in February indicted Kyle “Dusty” Foggo, a former top CIA official, and she was reported last summer to have been expanding her investigation to include Rep. Jerry Lewis, California Republican, then-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

The Justice Department has said Mrs. Lam was fired for not sufficiently prosecuting illegal alien cases.

But Mr. Conyers, in a Jan. 17, 2007, letter to Mr. Gonzales, wrote, “Forcing Mrs. Lam’s resignation now leaves the appearance that this growing public corruption probe may be part of the administration’s motivation in removing her.”

Richard A. Hertling, acting assistant attorney general, responded in a Jan. 22 letter to Mr. Conyers that such suggestions were “categorically untrue” and “simply irresponsible.”

Mr. Conyers and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, Vermont Democrat, have both threatened the White House with subpoenas if top administration aides do not testify voluntarily.

Mr. Gonzales’ former chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, is set to testify under oath Thursday before Mr. Leahy’s panel.

However, President Bush has rejected Democrat requests for presidential adviser Karl Rove and former White House counsel Harriet Miers to appear under oath in public, calling such a scenario a “show trial.”

The White House has offered private interviews with Mr. Rove and Miss Miers to select members of Congress, with no oath and no transcript.

Democrats have rejected the offer, and the situation is currently at an impasse.

Legal experts, however, say both sides will probably prefer to work out an agreement rather than let the matter go to the Supreme Court, where a ruling could be devastating to either side.

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