(The Root) — The House Oversight Committee voted on Wednesday, 23-17, to cite Attorney General Eric Holder for contempt of Congress.
The measure will go to the full House for a vote next. If passed by the House, the matter would then move to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, Ronald Machen Jr., who could potentially file a criminal contempt. The charge carries a punishment of up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $1,000.
The House committee’s resolution, passed on strictly partisan lines, was based on the probe into a gun operation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), informally known as Fast and Furious. The operation was the last and largest in a series of “gun-walking” schemes that began in 2006 under the Bush administration.
Designed to track firearms in order to go after the “big fish,” the tactic involved the ATF deliberately allowing guns to be purchased by suspected traffickers for Mexican drug cartels. Operation Fast and Furious put some 2,000 weapons on the street and in 2010 led to the death of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
Throughout the more than 15 months of the investigation, Holder has appeared before Congress nine times, submitted more than 7,600 pages of documents and made other Justice Department senior officials available for interviews, testimony and briefings.
But he has not turned over other documents that Issa requested, detailing how the Justice Department learned of problems with the operation, on the grounds that they contain confidential information about ongoing law-enforcement investigations.
On Wednesday, President Obama asserted executive privilege over these documents (an action that, contrary to what some critics have alleged, does not apply exclusively to presidential communications). In a letter to Obama on Tuesday, urging the president to exert executive privilege, Holder said that sharing documents containing information about in-progress cases with lawmakers “would have significant, damaging consequences.” As CNN reports:
In particular, Issa’s committee wants documents that show why the Department of Justice decided to withdraw as inaccurate a February 2011 letter sent to Congress that said top officials had only recently learned about Fast and Furious.
Holder said he offered to turn over some of the documents sought by Issa when they met Tuesday in a final effort to resolve the dispute before Wednesday’s hearing. Issa, however, said Holder put unreasonable conditions on his offer.