Congressman Darrell Issa

 

BY BEN GOAD
WASHINGTON BUREAU
bgoad@pe.com

Published: 20 June 2012 01:24 PM

WASHINGTON — A House panel led by Inland Rep. Darrell Issa voted to hold U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, a rare move that could lead to a criminal probe into the Justice Department’s handling of a botched anti-gun trafficking operation.

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s vote to issue a contempt citation came Wednesday, June 20, during a dramatic hearing in which the White House attempted to sidestep the contempt vote by invoking executive privilege.

That effort was rebuffed and the contempt citation was approved on a 23-17 vote with the panel’s Republicans all voting in favor and all Democrats opposing it.

Immediately after the vote, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, announced plans to bring the contempt resolution to the floor for a full House vote next week if the dispute is not resolved.

If that measure were to pass, the case could be referred to the U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia for possible criminal prosecution. Such a result would be unprecedented for a Cabinet secretary — especially the nation’s top law enforcement officer — and is seen as unlikely, in part because the contempt charge would expire at the end of the current Congress and criminal proceedings often take much longer.

At the center of the dispute are e-mail correspondence and other documents related to Operation Fast and Furious, a federal operation that involved the sale of guns, many of which wound up in the hands of Mexican drug cartels.

Under the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives operation, middlemen known as “straw buyers” were allowed to purchase guns in the United States. Authorities planned to monitor the guns’ movement across the border. By tracking the weapons, they hoped to identify and arrest high-level drug traffickers and disrupt the cartels they supported.

But authorities lost track of as many as 2,000 guns, including semiautomatic weapons. Some were later linked to crimes. Two AK-47 rifles were found at the scene of the 2010 slaying of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in Arizona. Terry had gone through boot camp at Camp Pendleton near Temecula.

“Brian Terry is dead. He is dead with weapons that were allowed to walk by our government,” said Issa, R-Vista. “A year and a half later, the Terry family is still searching for answers … the Department of Justice has fought this committee’s investigation every step of the way.”

The contempt vote is among the most aggressive actions that Issa, who represents much of southwestern Riverside County, has taken during his two-year tenure as the House’s top watchdog.

As chairman of the oversight panel, Issa issued subpoenas seeking information about Fast and Furious, what Justice Department officials knew about the operation, and when they knew it. Thus far, the agency has turned over roughly 7,600 documents.

Holder maintained that the Justice Department has already provided an unprecedented amount of information. In a meeting with Issa on Tuesday evening, Holder offered to release the remaining materials.

“We offered the documents on the condition it would resolve the subpoenas,” Holder told reporters after Tuesday’s meeting. “The offer that we made is still there.”

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