Attorney General Eric Holder (File)
WASHINGTON (June 20 2012)—A U.S. House committee voted Wednesday to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress after the White House announced it was asserting executive privilege rather than turn over documents the panel sought in its probe of a flawed gun-running investigation.
The straight party-line vote was 23-17.
The chairman of the panel, Republican congressman Darrell Issa, failed to reach an agreement with Holder during a 20-minute meeting on Tuesday at the Capitol.
A Democrat on the committee, Elijah Cummings, says Republicans could have resolved the issue, but instead chose to pick a fight.
House Speaker John Boehner said earlier Wednesday the decision to invoke executive privilege raised new questions.
A spokesman for Boehner said the decision suggests that White House officials, rather than the Justice Department, were involved in the gun-running investigation, despite earlier claims to the contrary.
He says the administration was either "lying" then, or is now "bending the law to hide the truth."
The White House, meanwhile, accused House Republicans of engaging in a "politically motivated, taxpayer-funded election-year fishing expedition."
U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was killed in 2010 in Arizona by illegal immigrants armed with weapons from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives gun-walking operation called “Fast and Furious,” in which the ATF secretly encouraged gun dealers to sell to suspected drug cartel traffickers.
The plan was to track the guns across the border, but agents lost track of hundreds of the weapons.
Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, called the White House decision “an attempt to cover up the evidence.”
“The president needs to remember this investigation is not about the legality of personnel or administrative activity, this is about the murder of a U.S. Border Patrol officer and multiple individuals inside Mexico under the oversight of the U.S. Attorney General. This legal maneuver by the Administration has the appearance of an admission of guilt,” he said.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said the president has “failed to hold anyone accountable for his department’s mishandling of ‘Fast and Furious,’ which led to the death of Brian Terry.”
“Today’s vote could have been avoided, but the attorney general’s and President Obama’s insistence on stonewalling left no other option,” he said.
The next step is for the full House to debate the contempt citation, which requires majority vote for approval.
Assuming that happens, which is likely given the GOP control of the House, then the house speaker would turn the matter over to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia who’s required only to take the contempt case to a grand jury, and not necessarily to prosecute it.
Contempt of Congress is a misdemeanor that carries penalties ranging from fines of $100 to $100,000 and jail sentences from 30 days to 12 months.