"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.
Ironically, as Byron York of the Washington Examiner has reported, publicity about scandals at AmeriCorps -- especially the taxpayer money misspent by a charity founded by former NBA star Kevin Johnson, an Obama ally who is now the Democratic mayor of Sacramento -- was exactly what the administration had hoped to squelch by firing Walpin.
That move has clearly backfired. In addition to the discovery process of a federal lawsuit and the Lieberman-Collins investigation, Walpin's case is also the subject of a separate inquiry by Sen. Chuck Grassley -- the Iowa Republican regarded as the Senate's patron saint of IGs -- as well as an FBI investigation into allegations that someone in Sacramento deleted e-mails relevant to Walpin's investigation of Johnson's St. HOPE charity.
Beyond that, Walpin's dismissal was the first of three similar cases of pressure against IGs, along with the termination of ITC inspector general Judith Gwynne's contract and the sudden retirement of the Amtrak IG Fred Wiederhold.
Those familiar with the investigations caution against "playing connect-the-dots" with these three distinct cases. However, some informed Republican sources are beginning to call attention to other evidence of a concerted effort to blindfold, muzzle or neuter watchdogs -- especially those who dare to growl at Democrats.
Why, for instance, did Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) rush through the House a bill that would give President Obama power to dismiss five inspectors general -- including the IG for the Securities and Exchange Commission -- who under existing law report to the agency heads?
The IGs themselves have protested against the Larson bill, which has yet to be debated in the Senate, and it has not escaped notice on Capitol Hill that Larson is a prominent "Friend of Chris." That would be Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. Dodd is under intense scrutiny for a number of shady-looking activities -- "Chris Dodd Update" has become a regular feature at Professor Glenn Reynolds' popular Instapundit blog -- and Dodd is also facing a tough re-election bid next year.
No one on the Hill has yet directly suggested that the Larson bill -- which could effectively muzzle watchdogs at five federal financial agencies -- was specifically intended as assistance to the embattled chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. But as liberal bloggers used to say about the Bush administration's activities, some Republicans have begun to "question the timing."
Timing is very important in politics, and both Republicans and Democrats are beginning to look ahead to the 2010 mid-term elections. Projections of double-digit unemployment and mushrooming deficits are already causing some Democratic jitters. The questions being asked about the IG investigations and Obama's promises of "transparency" now dangle like a sword of Damocles above the heads of Democrats on the Hill.
If Democrats take a "methodical" approach to the investigations, working behind closed doors with Rule 29 to prevent public disclosure, they risk Republican accusations -- fair or unfair -- that they are "dragging their feet" or worse. On the other hand, if Democrats begin to express public skepticism about the Obama administration's "transparency" rhetoric, they risk repercussions from the "Chicago Way" of hardball politics that Team Obama seems to have brought to Washington.
And at the center of all this nervousness and suspicion stands the junior senator from Connecticut, Joe Lieberman, who campaigned last year for Republican "Maverick" John McCain. That would be the same Joe Lieberman who is now an independent because left-wingers backed millionaire newcomer Ned Lamont against him in the 2006 Democratic primary. And Chris Dodd was among the Democrats who campaigned for Lamont.
Lieberman prides himself on bipartisanship and integrity. Three weeks ago, he reacted furiously to an accusation by the Washington Times that his committee was failing to pursue the IG investigation. Since then, the "methodical" Lieberman has said little, while Republican suspicions have flourished.
Yet Democrats may have suspicions of their own. Given the vicious treatment the chairman endured from some Democrats three years ago, one veteran Washington journalist told me last week, Lieberman "don't owe those people squat."
July 17: Amtrak IG: Important Background
July 14: IG-Gate: Sincere Doubts
July 14: The Little Scandal That Could
July 9: Democrats Question AmeriCorps Official's Stonewall on IG Case
July 1: Malkin on IG-Gate: Does the Endangered Species Act Include Watchdogs?
June 26: Grassley: Amtrak 'Systematically Violated' IG Law
June 25: Eleanor Acheson: Lobbyist
June 25: Obama Plays Hardball With Watchdogs
June 23: Amtrak IG Probe: Who Is Eleanor Acheson?
June 19: IG-Gate: Domino Theory
June 18: AmeriCorps Scandal Won't Go Away Soon