What happens when Congress holds an oversight hearing and the overseen refuses to show up? Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee found out on Wednesday, when they convened to examine allegations of selective prosecution by the US Department of Justice. The second in a series of hearings into the politicization of the DOJ focused on allegations that the department had either failed to prosecute or delayed prosecution of people involved in GOP voter-suppression efforts during the 2002 and 2004 elections. On hand to testify: a New Hampshire congressman, a felonious former GOP political operative, a New Hampshire lawyer, and an NYU professor. Conspicuously absent was anyone from the Justice Department, which not only declined to send an official to testify, but also ignored repeated requests from the committee to hand over internal documents relevant to the hearing.
The dis was hardly unusual. Over the past year, the Judiciary Committee has held numerous oversight hearings and requested a host of documents from the DOJ on everything from the operation of its civil rights division to deferred prosecution agreements. For the most part, the agency has simply ignored the committee, setting the stage for yet another showdown between the administration and Congress. Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers sent Attorney General Michael Mukasey a letter on May 9 lamenting that while he has sent numerous letters and document requests to the Justice Department over the past year, the agency has failed to provide the requested documents and "in some cases, even to answer" its requests. He went on to warn that if Mukasey and his staff fail to come up with a specific schedule for the document production by Friday, May 16, "we will have little choice but to consider compulsory process."
Conyers repeated his subpoena threat at Wednesday's hearing, after noting that the committee's attempts at oversight had been met with "almost total stonewalling." He warned, "You'd better get some documents answered fast, Mr. Attorney General, or you're going to hear from me."
But without anyone on hand from the DOJ to respond to the saber rattling, Conyers had to content himself with grilling the witnesses in front of him, who had scant new information to offer on the department's performance or lack thereof. The bulk of the panel was devoted to the events that transpired in New Hampshire during the 2002 midterm election. That's when state GOP operatives, working in cahoots with the regional director of the Bush/Cheney campaign, hatched a scheme to tie up the phone lines of Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts. Ultimately, four people were indicted or pleaded guilty for their involvement in the effort. One of them was the hearing's star witness, Allen Raymond, who spent three months in a federal prison for his role in the phone-jamming scheme.
If Conyers was hoping that Raymond would drop some newsworthy bombs, however, he was clearly disappointed. Raymond has already dropped all his bombs in a tell-all book, How to Rig an Election, about his rise and fall in GOP politics, which Billy Ray, the writer-director of Shattered Glass, and Breach, recently optioned for a movie.
The only remaining mystery about the phone-jamming affair—and the primary reason the committee is so interested in it—is whether or not the White House was involved, a question that the DOJ prosecutors didn't answer. The evidence is surely tantalizing: On Election Day 2002, James Tobin, the RNC's regional director and a Bush/Cheney campaign official, made 22 phone calls to an office in the White House, run at the time by political director Ken Mehlman. With White House approval, the RNC also paid Tobin's legal bills, a sign, Democrats suggest, that it wanted him to keep quiet about who knew what and when. Conyers was clearly hoping that Raymond, who'd arranged for the actual jamming of the phones, would implicate the White House. But he burst that bubble right out of the gate, saying, "I cannot link the New Hampshire phone-jamming scheme in any way to President George Bush's White House." Conyers would have been better off getting Tobin himself to testify with promises of immunity.
Republicans, meanwhile, made their feelings about the hearing clear from the outset. In his opening statement, Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) declared the hearing an utter waste of time. "These cases are old news," he fumed. His colleague, the former Texas judge Louie Gohmert, echoed those sentiments. "Why are we here today?" he demanded, noting that the committee had to cut short a markup of seven important crime bills to convene the hearing that he claimed was born out of "desperation." Gohmert ticked off a list of items he found more relevant for the committee's attention, including a random and inexplicable reference to former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who Gohmert thought ought to be investigated for perjury based on his numerous appearances before the committee regarding the outing of his CIA wife, Valerie Plame. Then, the Republican congressman stormed out of the hearing room, never to return.
Early on, the hearing quickly dissolved into a series of spats between Cannon and Linda Sanchez, chairwoman of the subcommittee on commercial and administrative law, who presided over the hearing; between Cannon and Conyers; and between Cannon and all the witnesses. ("I don't mean to heckle the witness," Cannon said before going on to heckle his colleague, Rep. Paul Hodes, a Democrat from New Hampshire, who was the first witness.)
While the final three witnesses were there largely for their knowledge of the New Hampshire phone-jamming case, Cannon grilled them about the Obama/Clinton primary in Nevada, allegations of Democratic voter fraud, and even allegations of fraud during the 1996 election between Sanchez's sister Loretta and Republican Bob Dornan, a move that didn't win him much good will from the chair. Since none of the witnesses had even the slightest bit of insight into these matters, Sanchez finally managed to draw the hearing to a close three hours after it started, and stomped off into the hallway, perhaps agreeing with the gentlemen from across the aisle that the hearing was, indeed, a waste of time.
Photo by flickr user KB35 used under a Creative Commons license.