The chairman of a key House committee on Thursday demanded that the State Department’s office of inspector general explain passages in internal documents that refer to pressure from department higher-ups to quash investigations into suspected criminal activity — including the solicitation of prostitutes, illegal drug activity and sexual assault — by U.S. diplomatic personnel overseas.
The call, which came in a biting letter to the office’s leadership by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce, California Republican, now may set the stage for congressional hearings on the matter. But it also arrives amid a widening and bitter legal fight between the inspector general’s office and an employee turned whistleblower who brought the documents into public view this week.
No charges have been filed, but one State Department official said that officials within the inspector general’s office believe Aurelia Fedenisn — who previously worked as an investigator — may have inappropriately shared the “internal and preliminary” documents in a manner that violated a nondisclosure “separation agreement” she signed upon retiring from the inspector general’s office in December.
Prior to their appearance in the media this week, the documents already had triggered inspector general investigations into the suspected criminal activity by diplomats, as well as into the claims that earlier probes into such activity were blocked by senior State Department officials under Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
With those ongoing investigations at risk of being jeopardized by the release of the internal documents, the inspector general’s office declined to comment Thursday on whether it is considering taking legal action against Mrs. Fedenisn.
The notion, however, that the State Department’s main watchdog agency could file charges against one of its own former watchdogs adds an ugly twist to the scandal, which has rocked Foggy Bottom since the documents possessed by Mrs. Fedenisn were first highlighted in a CBS News on Monday.
The State Department has repeatedly refused to comment on the charges outlined in one of the documents, an internal memo believed to be based on anonymous complaints from rank-and-file diplomatic security agents that arose during a 2012 inspector general review of their department.
The situation has caused frustration to mount on Capitol Hill. “I am troubled by reports that senior State Department officials may have prevented the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) from investigating instances of administrative and criminal misconduct within the department,” Mr. Royce wrote in his letter Thursday to Deputy Inspector General Harold Geisel.
Attorneys for Mrs. Fedenisn assert that she acted within her legal rights in bringing the charges to light because the separation agreement she signed upon retiring from the inspector general’s office included a federal whistleblower clause.
Damon Mathias, a Dallas-based lawyer representing Mrs. Fedenisn, said his client acted appropriately because federal whistleblower protection status is afforded to former employees seeking to share sensitive materials with members of Congress.
Before internal documents were leaked to CBS News, they were provided to the offices of House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, and Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, Mr. Mathias said.
But one State Department official said questions remained over whom Mrs. Fedenisn leaked the documents to first.
“What you have to look at is the timing,” said the official, who asked not to be identified by name. “In order for her to officially become a whistleblower, she has to give the documents to a congressional authority first.
“Giving them to her lawyers in Texas does not make her a whistleblower. It makes her a violator of the separation statement she signed,” the official said. “So, did she give it to the lawyers first, or did she give it to the media first?”
It is not clear when, or how, Mrs. Fedenisn became connected with Mr. Mathias and Cary Schulman, another Dallas-based lawyer working with Mr. Mathias in representing the former inspector general investigator.
During an interview with The Times this week, Mr. Mathias declined to speak specifically about the matter beyond saying that “a connection came about” with Mrs. Fedenisn through Richard Higbie, another State Department employee whom the lawyers are representing in a separate case. Mr. Higbie, an agent of the department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, is involved in an “employment discrimination case in Texas” and, like Mrs. Fedenisn, has “claimed his whistle-blower status,” Mr. Mathias said.
He added that once a connection was made with Mrs. Fedenisn, she was not interested in speaking to CBS News or any other media outlet about the inspector general documents in her possession.
She apparently changed her mind May 22 when two agents from the inspector general’s office suddenly showed up at her home in the District and sought to retrieve the documents.
Mr. Mathias said Mrs. Fedenisn was not home when the agents arrived, but her children were and they called her upon becoming disturbed by two suspicious-looking agents in front of the house.
At that point, Mrs. Fedenisn contacted the lawyers, who in turn contacted CBS News, which quickly sent a camera crew to the house, Mr. Mathias said. CBS aired footage from the incident as part of its report on the internal documents in Mrs. Fedenisn’s possession.
Details of how the documents became public have become a subject of heated speculation in the back hallways of the State Department, particularly in light of political undertones.
Some commentators have argued that Republicans are eager to pounce on the scandal as part of a wider effort to “smear” Mrs. Clinton if she intends to run for president in 2016.
Such conjecture has prompted some to question privately why the documents were given to the office of Mr. Cruz, a freshman senator who also has been mentioned as a potential candidate in 2016. Mr. Mathias said the reason was because he and Mr. Schulman are based in Dallas and Mr. Cruz is the lawmaker representing Texas in the Senate.
Mr. Mathias said the documents also were given to Mr. Issa’s office because he heads the primary House panel that conducts investigations of executive branch issues.
Mr. Cruz has not commented on the documents or the allegations cited in them. His office did not immediately respond Thursday to a query for information about when the senator received the documents and whether it was Mrs. Fedenisn or her attorneys who delivered them.