June 20 (Bloomberg) -- A U.S. House committee brushed aside President Barack Obama’s claim of executive privilege and held Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for failing to turn over documents related to a law enforcement effort to track guns to Mexican drug cartels.
In a party-line vote, the Republican majority on the House Oversight and Government Reform panel voted to approve the first contempt citation for a Cabinet member in 14 years. Republicans said Holder failed to comply with a subpoena for documents in the Fast and Furious gun operation, which allowed illegally purchased firearms from the U.S. to wind up in Mexico.
The 23-17 committee vote marks an escalation in a standoff that began last year between Republican lawmakers and the Obama administration. Republican leaders said the full House will vote on the measure next week, setting up a potential referral of the case to the U.S. attorney in Washington to determine whether prosecution is warranted.
“While we had hoped it would not come to this, unless the attorney general reevaluates his choice and supplies the promised documents, the House will vote to hold him in contempt next week,” House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor said in a statement. “If, however, Attorney General Holder produces these documents prior to the scheduled vote, we will give the Oversight Committee an opportunity to review in hopes of resolving this issue.”
The House panel, led by Republican Representative Darrell Issa of California, is seeking documents describing internal Justice Department discussions about a February 2011 letter to lawmakers that Holder later said mistakenly contained incorrect information.
The Justice Department says it already has provided more than 7,600 pages of documents in the case. Holder called the committee’s vote “an election-year tactic intended to distract attention.”
“Unfortunately, Chairman Issa has rejected all of these efforts to reach a reasonable accommodation,” Holder said in a statement after the vote. “Instead, he has chosen to use his authority to take an extraordinary, unprecedented and entirely unnecessary action, intended to provoke an avoidable conflict between Congress and the Executive Branch.”
This is the first time Obama has invoked executive privilege, according to the White House.
Executive privilege is a principle that says the executive branch can’t be forced by the legislative branch to disclose confidential communications when they would harm operations.
Documents responsive to the House panel’s subpoena relate to “sensitive law enforcement activities, including ongoing criminal investigations and prosecutions,” Deputy Attorney General James Cole said in a letter today to Issa.
Guns in Fast and Furious ended up “lost” and will turn up at crime scenes on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border for years, Holder told lawmakers last year.
Two of about 2,000 guns that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed to be carried away were found at the scene of the December 2010 murder of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry in Arizona, according to a congressional report.
Holder has said he didn’t learn of the tactics in the operation until after it was the subject of news reports. Since then, he has banned the use of similar law enforcement methods.
Holder last year told a Senate hearing that he regretted a Feb. 4, 2011, letter the Justice Department sent lawmakers that indicated the ATF hadn’t “knowingly allowed” the tactics in the law enforcement operation to be employed. Information in the letter turned out to be inaccurate, he said.
Dozens of Republican lawmakers have called on Holder to resign over his handling of probes into the gun operation and leaks of classified national security information. Republicans have also criticized how the Justice Department under Holder has prosecuted terror suspects and challenged state immigration and voting laws.
In 1998, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich opted against a floor vote on contempt when the oversight panel cited Attorney General Janet Reno for withholding documents related to a campaign finance investigation.
“If Mr. Boehner takes this to the House, he will be seen as one of the most extreme speakers ever,” Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the Oversight panel’s top Democrat, told reporters after the vote.
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