House Panel Votes to Cite Rove for Contempt
WASHINGTON A House panel Wednesday voted to cite former top White House aide Karl Rove for contempt of Congress for defying a subpoena to answer questions about the dismissals of several federal prosecutors as its Senate counterpart explored punishments for an array of alleged past and present Bush administration misdeeds.
Voting 20-14 along party lines, the House Judiciary Committee said that Rove had broke the law by failing to appear at a July 10 hearing on allegations of White House influence over the Justice Department, including whether Rove encouraged prosecutions against Democrats such as former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman.
The committee decision is only a recommendation, and it was unclear whether Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would allow a final vote. Rove has denied any involvement with Justice decisions, and the White House has said Congress has no authority to compel testimony from current and former advisers.
With little more than three months before Election Day, it wasn't clear whether majority Democrats could take any substantial action in a political environment in which time for the current Congress is running short and lawmakers face a host of daunting legislative problems and a cluttered calendar.
The House committee vote occurred as members of the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on allegations of administration wrongdoing ranging from discriminating against liberals at Justice to ignoring subpoenas and lying to Congress.
For his part, Rove has denied any involvement with Justice decisions, and the White House has said Congress has no authority to compel testimony from current and former advisers.
Rove's attorney, Robert Luskin, had urged the panel in a Tuesday letter not to cite his client, calling it a "gratuitously punitive" action that would serve no purpose because the question of executive privilege is already pending in two other cases in federal court.
Republicans on the committee, who unanimously opposed the measure, accused Democrats of staging political theater.
"Instead of conducting witch hunts, we should consider bipartisan legislation to reduce the price of gas, reduce crime and secure the borders," said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the top Republican on the panel.
But Democrats cited recent internal audits finding that politics heavily shaped Justice Department hiring, and they said that Rove had left them with no choice but to support a contempt citation.
"His name has come up repeatedly in the hearings on this subject," said Judiciary Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich. "Yet he refuses to testify based on legally invalid claims of immunity privilege."
The House vote occurred as members of the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on allegations of administration wrongdoing ranging from discriminating against liberals at Justice to ignoring subpoenas and lying to Congress.
The Senate proceedings were the latest congressional review of the White House, a constitutionally mandated power that majority Democrats are eager to use. But three months from Election Day, a lame-duck Congress conducting oversight of a lame-duck White House produces mostly talk. There's little time and less willingness to spend the remaining five weeks of the congressional session doing more than holding televised hearings to try to convince voters that President Bush has abused the powers of his office.
The allegations certainly are serious.
Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine, who reported this week that former department officials broke the law by letting Bush administration politics dictate the hiring of prosecutors, immigration judges and career government lawyers, was among the witnesses to appear Wednesday before the Senate panel.
Fine said his office and Justice's Office of Professional Responsibility are investigating the prosecutor firings and whether Bradley Schlozman, former head of the department's Civil Rights Division, used political or ideological criteria to make hiring decisions.
Under questioning by Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the panel's senior Republican, Fine said he uncovered no evidence that any Justice officials involved made false statements to Congress or violated criminal law. Politicization of the hiring process for career positions is a violation of civil law and department policy, he said.
The Senate probe sprang from Justice's firings of nine federal prosecutors that sparked congressional investigations last year and led to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
House and Senate Democrats said the findings affirmed their contention that career Justice employees were hired and fired based on whether they were deemed sufficiently conservative, a violation of law. Conyers said earlier that he was considering bringing criminal charges against some of the former officials named in Fine's report who may have lied to his committee. Lying to Congress is a crime, but there's little agreement among Democrats on whether a perjury referral against some of the officials is warranted.
But one Republican acknowledged there's reason to look more closely. And everyone wants more answers by the Department of Justice. The question is what will be done now in the twilight of the 110th Congress and the Bush presidency.
"I'm glad to see Attorney General (Michael) Mukasey asking to change these practices," Specter said earlier. "I'd like to see frankly a very forceful statement out of the Department of Justice as to what they intend to do."
Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy called the report's findings that "cronyism was valued over competence" and "affirmative action of the worst kind."
"The question is what Attorney General Mukasey and the president do about it to provide accountability?" the Vermont Democrat said.
Some Democrats skipped right to thinking what can be done starting in January, after a new president and Congress are installed, probably with more Democrats in their ranks.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who led the investigation into the prosecutor firings, is pressing Fine to say whether making such a disregard of civil service rules a crime would deter the kind of conduct his investigation uncovered.
Similar legislation will be considered in the House.
"I will be asking Chairman Conyers to consider legislation to ensure that the politicization of hiring of career employees at the Justice Department never happens again," Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement.
Copyright 2008, Time, Inc.