The chairman of a House committee investigating the failed “Fast and Furious” gunrunning operation demanded Thursday that the Justice Department make a second key federal prosecutor in Arizona available for questioning about “his role in and knowledge of” the controversial probe.
Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, made the demand in a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. after the panel’s first choice - Patrick J. Cunningham, chief of the Criminal Division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona - refused last week to submit to a deposition by committee investigators, citing his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.
In his letter, Mr. Issa said Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Morrissey, who worked for Mr. Cunningham, played an “integral part” in the Fast and Furious operation and has information not available from other sources.
Mr. Issa also called Mr. Cunningham’s exercise of his Fifth Amendment rights “extremely rare,” saying it “suggests possible criminal culpability on the part of a high-ranking Justice Department official.”
“Since August, the department has identified Patrick Cunningham as the best person in the U.S. Attorney’s Office to provide information about Fast and Furious to the committee,” Mr. Issa wrote. “The department has refused to make Michael Morrissey and Emory Hurley, both assistant United States attorneys supervised by Mr. Cunningham, available to speak with the committee, citing a policy of not making ‘line attorneys’ available for congressional scrutiny.
“Mr. Morrissey, however, was Mr. Hurley’s direct supervisor, and an integral part of Fast and Furious,” Mr. Issa wrote. “Importantly, both Morrissey and Hurley are unique in their possession of key factual knowledge about Fast and Furious not readily available from any other source.”
Mr. Hurley was the lead prosecutor in the Fast and Furious operation. In August, he was reassigned from the Criminal Division to a Civil Division post.
Mr. Cunningham’s Washington attorney, Tobin J. Romero, told the committee the only information his client would provide was his name and Justice Department title.
In a letter, Mr. Romero said that as a “professional courtesy, and to avoid needless preparation by the committee and its staff,” he wanted the panel to know that his client would assert his constitutional privilege “not to be compelled to be a witness against himself.”
“My client is, in fact, innocent, but he has been ensnared by the unfortunate circumstances in which he now stands between two branches of government. I will, therefore, be instructing him to assert his constitutional privilege,” Mr. Romero wrote.
He also said the “objective evidence” collected by the committee showed that Mr. Cunningham “did nothing wrong and that he acted in good faith.” Mr. Romero also noted that the Fast and Furious investigation began in 2009, months before his client ever started at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Phoenix in 2010.
Mr. Cunningham will leave his post Friday for a private-sector job. He has been chief of the Criminal Division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Phoenix for the past two years.
Mr. Issa and Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, have been investigating the Fast and Furious operation for the past year, discovering that more than 2,000 weapons illegally purchased by “straw buyers” at Arizona gun shops, including hundreds of AK-47 semi-automatic assault rifles, had been allowed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to be “walked” to drug smugglers in Mexico. More than 1,400 of the weapons remain unaccounted for.
Two AK-47s purchased at a gun shop in Glendale, Ariz., were discovered at the site of the fatal shooting of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry, who was killed during a Dec. 14, 2010, gunfight with Mexican bandits just north of the border near Nogales, Ariz.
Mr. Holder is scheduled to testify Tuesday before the House committee. He and President Obama have denied any responsibility for the botched operation.