WASHINGTON — House Republicans threatened Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. with a criminal contempt of Congress citation on Thursday, alleging the Department of Justice has refused for a year to turn over key documents in lawmakers’ investigation of the failed Fast and Furious gun-tracking operation.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight Committee, told Holder in a Capitol Hill hearing that the Justice Department has provided only 6,400 pages of “heavily redacted” documents out of some 93,000 that the committee sought.
Issa said he and his GOP colleagues believe that Justice officials are suppressing evidence that they approved the gun-walking tactics used in the operation, which ultimately allowed hundreds of U.S. weapons to flow to violent Mexican drug cartels.
“All these people should be ashamed that they didn’t do as good a job as they should have,” Issa said.
The operation along the Southwest border in Arizona permitted illegal gun purchases in the hope that agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives could track the weapons to cartel leaders. Instead, some 1,700 guns were lost. Scores turned up at crime scenes in Mexico, and two were recovered after a U.S. Border Patrol agent was killed south of Tucson.
Holder testified that his department is trying to cooperate with the congressional investigation. He said Justice staffers have responded to three dozen letters from members of Congress and have “facilitated numerous witness interviews.”
“This has been a significant undertaking for department employees, and our efforts in this regard remain ongoing,” Holder said. He added, “There is no attempt at any kind of a cover-up.”
Should the Issa committee follow through, the panel would hold hearings or simply vote on a resolution to find Holder and possibly other Justice officials in contempt. The full House would then consider the matter.
If the House agreed, the resolution would be sent to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, and he would be directed to bring a criminal indictment. But because the U.S. attorney serves under Holder, some other special prosecutor might be chosen to handle the matter.
Republicans also are concerned that Patrick Cunningham, who ran the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney’s office in Phoenix and oversaw Fast and Furious, has resigned and is refusing to cooperate with the committee. Cunningham has invoked the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination.
Democrats on the committee, who conducted their own investigation, said they found no evidence that Holder or other Justice officials oversaw or approved of Fast and Furious.
But Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., a former committee chairman, did not back down. “You’re hiding something here,” he told Holder. “You ought to give us the documents.”
Holder said his department’s review of the material so far has shown that much of it is “not relevant or protected by grand jury secrecy rules.” As to Cunningham, Holder said he did not know why he pleaded the Fifth, but said “that is certainly his right as an American citizen.”