WASHINGTON – A House committee voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress Wednesday in the investigation into Operation Fast and Furious, the botched “gun-walking” operation by federal agents in Arizona.
The 23-17 straight-party-line vote by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee followed the announcement that President Barack Obama planned to claim executive privilege on some documents in the case, potentially shielding them from House members.
During more than three hours of debate that followed, Republicans said Holder had been “stonewalling” the committee and its requests for documents. They chided the White House for the last-minute timing of its privilege announcement.
Democrats responded that they were “horrified” by the threat of contempt against a Cabinet member, in what they called a “political witch hunt.”
Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Flagstaff, said the move to hold Holder in contempt was “overdue, but welcome.”
“I’m convinced that holding the attorney general in contempt is the only way to send a strong message to this administration and future ones that no one is above the law, including the nation’s top law enforcement officer,” Gosar said during the hearing.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the commttee chairman, said he and Holder met Tuesday night, but failed to reach agreement on a plan that would have halted a contempt vote.
Issa said the attorney general offered some documents Tuesday in exchange for calling off the vote. But Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., disagreed, saying Holder only asked that they continue discussions.
Operation Fast and Furious was a gun-trafficking investigation run from 2009 to 2010 out of the Phoenix office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The operation called for ATF agents to let guns “walk,” or let straw buyers go in hopes of tracing the guns to trafficking operations or criminal cartels.
But of the 2,000 or so firearms sold in the operation, many are still unaccounted for. A number of these weapons are believed to now be in the hands of criminals.
Some have been found at crime scenes, including two AK-47s that were found at the fatal shooting of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry near Rio Rico, Ariz., in December 2010.
“Our son lost his life protecting this nation, and it is very disappointing that we are now faced with an administration that seems more concerned with protecting themselves rather than revealing the truth behind Operation Fast and Furious,” said Terry’s parents, Josephine and Kent Terry Sr., in a statement Wednesday.
Issa’s committee is one of several that have been looking into the operation. The House committee has subpoenaed documents from the Justice Department in an effort to determine who in the administration knew about the operation and when, and if they approved it.
Holder has said repeatedly that his office is working to provide all the documents it can, but that some are sealed court documents and others cannot be released because they are part of an ongoing investigation. The president’s exercise of executive privilege could also protect some documents.
Holder has also said his office is stretched thin working to deliver the documents. Cummings noted that the Justice Department has gone through “millions of emails” and provided more than 7,500 documents to the committee.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., released a statement promising a full House vote on the committee’s contempt citation.
“While we had hoped it would not come to this, unless the attorney general re-evaluates his choice and supplies the promised documents, the House will vote to hold him in contempt next week,” their statement said.
If the House votes to hold Holder in contempt, the issue would be referred to Ronald C. Machen Jr., the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. Machen – whose office reports to Holder – could pursue a contempt case that has a maximum penalty of a $1,000 fine and a year in prison.
After the hearing, however, Issa said there is “still time to avoid the vote” if Holder provides the documents before a full House vote.