Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. faces a contempt of Congress hearing Wednesday after refusing a last-minute compromise offer to turn over subpoenaed documents to a House committee investigating the botched Fast and Furious gunrunning operation.
Deadlocked since October over the delivery of hundreds of pages of Justice Department documents concerning the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigation that saw more than 2,000 weapons “walked” to drug smugglers in Mexico, Mr. Holder showed up empty-handed during a 20-minute, face-to-face meeting Tuesday afternoon on Capitol Hill with House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa.
“I had hoped that after this evening’s meeting I would be able to tell you that the department had delivered documents that would justify the postponement of tomorrow’s vote on contempt,” Mr. Issa said. “The department told the committee on Thursday that it had documents it could produce that would answer our questions.
“Today, the attorney general informed us that the department would not be producing those documents. The only offer they made involved us ending our investigation,” the California Republican said.
Mr. Holder told reporters after the meeting that he would not turn over Fast and Furious documents unless Mr. Issa agreed to another meeting, where he said he would explain what is in the materials.
He said he wanted an assurance from Mr. Issa that the transfer of the records would satisfy the committee’s subpoena.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House committee, described the session as “a very good meeting.” He said Mr. Holder agreed to provide documents, a “substantive briefing of the department’s actions” and a description of the categories of documents produced and withheld, and to “entertain substantive follow-up requests for information.”
“He was very clear that answering these subpoenas has taken up a substantial amount of time of the attorney general’s office, and I thought he was — as I have always thought, he has been very reasonable in trying to address this issue,” Mr. Cummings said. He also said some of the documents Mr. Issa wants are unlawful for Mr. Holder to release, such as wiretap applications and others that “might have placed trials and investigations in jeopardy.”
Mr. Issa said he hoped the department will reconsider its decision so the scheduled Wednesday vote can be postponed, but added, “After this meeting, I cannot say that I am optimistic.”
He said Mr. Holder came with an “offer of a briefing.”
“At this point, we simply do not have the documents we have repeatedly said we need to justify the postponement of a contempt vote in committee,” he said.
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee who first began the Fast and Furious investigation after the Dec. 15, 2010, shooting death of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry, said Mr. Holder sought to “trade a briefing and the promise of delivering some small, unspecified set of documents tomorrow for a free pass today.
“He wants to turn over only what he wants to turn over and not give us any information about what he’s not turning over. That’s unacceptable,” he said. “I’m not going to buy a pig in a poke. Chairman Issa is right to move forward to seek answers about a disastrous government operation.”
Terry was killed in a gunfight with bandits along the U.S.-Mexico border, south of Tucson. Two semi-automatic AK-47 assault rifles found at the scene of the killing later were traced to the Fast and Furious operation.
Mr. Issa said that while Tuesday was his deadline for getting the documents he wanted, the deadline was only a means to getting the documents and wasn’t a hard deadline.
But he added that, “We do have a markup scheduled for tomorrow and if we receive no documents, we’ll go forward. If we receive documents, we’ll evaluate them and we’ll take such time as necessary in delay to be sure of the quality of these documents and whether they’re sufficient.
“Their position is they’d like to give us a briefing, then documents supporting their assertion that essentially there was no wrongdoing, and they bring it to a close,” he said. “We need the documents, not the briefing. We need the documents to know whether or not he’s being responsive to a paper request. We welcome the briefing once we’ve seen the documents.
“Ultimately, the attorney general is the custodian of the documents we wish to receive, and that’s why the contempt cites him,” he said. “We would hope that the president would ask his attorney general to be more cooperative. Thirty-one Democrats asked for more cooperation than we’ve gotten.”
Mr. Holder had hoped the committee would drop its pending contempt of Congress citation.
In addition to Mr. Holder, Mr. Issa, Mr. Grassley and Mr. Cummings, other participants in the meeting were Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, and Deputy Attorney General James Cole.
Mr. Cummings said Mr. Holder was “quite gracious and very forthright” during the meeting.
“Clearly, it appears that [Mr. Issa] had made up his mind before we even walked in the room. It’s unfortunate that things have gotten to this point,” he said. “I really do believe that we were on the 1-foot line. We could have gotten this ball across the goal, but, unfortunately, that did not happen this evening.”
The committee’s subpoena was issued in October, but Mr. Issa and the House leadership narrowed the scope of the committee’s request to Fast and Furious documents created after Feb. 4, 2011, after being told by the Justice Department that the earlier materials could affect pending prosecutions.
In a letter Monday, Mr. Holder told Mr. Issa that the Justice Department has offered “a serious, good faith proposal to bring this matter to an amicable resolution in the form of a briefing based on documents that the committee could retain.”
Mr. Holder said he expected that this “extraordinary accommodation” would satisfy the remaining concerns of Mr. Issa and the House leadership and “avoid an unnecessary Constitutional confrontation.”
If the committee votes to move a criminal contempt citation forward, it would go to the House floor where it would be debated. It would take a majority vote to approve it, but once that took place, the House speaker would turn over the matter to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia to bring it before a grand jury.