Secrecy, suspicion, and the IG investigations.
“Staff doesn’t speak for the committee,” a source on Capitol Hill explained last week. “The committee speaks for the committee.”
That’s the practical meaning of Senate Rule 29, which has been invoked regarding the Homeland Security and Government Oversight Committee investigation into last month’s firing of AmeriCorps inspector general Gerald Walpin.
The committee’s chairman, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, is entirely within his prerogative to protect the integrity of the investigation via Rule 29, which reads, in part:
Any Senator, officer, or employee of the Senate who shall disclose the secret or confidential business or proceedings of the Senate, including the business and proceedings of the committees, subcommittees, and offices of the Senate, shall be liable, if a Senator, to suffer expulsion from the body; and if an officer or employee, to dismissal from the service of the Senate, and to punishment for contempt.
Staffers therefore discuss the investigation at peril of termination and prosecution, and are understandably skittish when a reporter walks in the door. (For the record, the deputy press secretary for the committee revealed nothing more sensitive than the fact she plays catcher on Lieberman’s staff softball team, which had a game Friday afternoon at an undisclosed location.)
Rule 29 is in some sense standard operating procedure for Senate investigations, but it is one of several factors fueling a palpable distrust between Democratic and Republican staffers on the Hill as congressional inquiries into the apparent crackdown on watchdogs move forward — or don’t.
Republicans on both sides of Capitol Hill express skepticism of whether Democrats are genuinely interested in investigating anything except allegations of wrongdoing by the long-gone Bush administration. Not all of this skepticism is off-the-record, and it is by no means limited to the cases of Walpin and two other former inspectors general.
“You would think the majority would be just as vested as we are at exposing who knew what and when,” Kurt Bardella, spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), told a reporter for the Hill last week, regarding a slow-moving House investigation of the controversial merger between Bank of America and Merrill Lynch. “What exactly is the majority afraid we’ll find?”
Sharp public criticism of colleagues — in this case, Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, on which Issa serves as ranking Republican — is not particularly rare in the fractious House of Representatives. Decorum and dignity are more the norm on the Senate side of the Hill, but the fact that Senate Republicans aren’t publicly denouncing Joe Lieberman doesn’t mean they’re happy with the pace of his investigation into Walpin’s firing.
The most favorable GOP view of how the Lieberman committee is proceeding was expressed Friday by a Hill source who used the word “methodical,” saying that Lieberman and the committee’s ranking Republican, Maine Sen. Susan Collins, aren’t “looking for a press hit.” They’re not chasing headlines or, as prosecutors like to say, they don’t want to try the case in the media.
One Republican clearly unhappy with the Lieberman-Collins “methodical” approach is Gerald Walpin himself, who made headlines Friday by filing a lawsuit seeking reinstatement as IG, accusing the Corporation for National and Community Service — the agency that oversees AmeriCorps — and three of its officials of violating federal law in the process of firing him.
Win or lose, the Walpin lawsuit definitely adds a new angle to the story, primarily through the legal process known as “discovery,” whereby the defendants can be required to disclose…well, just about anything, really. If there is some document that the plaintiff can convince a judge is relevant to the case, the defendants will be ordered to hand it over, and then there are the sworn depositions. These requirements expose the defendants to legal jeopardy — for perjury, obstruction of justice and other such “process crimes” — if they don’t fully and honestly cooperate.
If all this sounds vaguely familiar, perhaps the reader is recalling a lawsuit, Jones v. Clinton, which led to the momentous deposition in which the defendant, William Jefferson Clinton, committed perjury about “that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”
Of course, as Americans were lectured for months on end, “everybody lies about sex,” but does everybody lie about firing a government watchdog whose job is to keep an eye out for “waste, fraud and abuse” in federal agencies?
Asked about the practical consequences of Walpin’s lawsuit, one former federal prosecutor familiar with such cases said that unless the suit is dropped or dismissed, it will eventually push new information about the case into the public record. “Eventually” is the key word, as the wheels of justice grind slowly.
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