An ethics watchdog group filed complaints against Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) with the Office of Congressional Ethics and the Justice Department on Wednesday for revealing details of federally sealed wiretap applications.
In the two complaints filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), the group claims that Issa “violated federal law by including material from a sealed wiretap application in the Congressional Record.”
However, Issa may be protected from what otherwise would be a criminal offense under Congress’s speech and debate clause because the remarks were written into the public record during chamber proceedings.
The head of CREW said Issa’s actions were worthy of Congress bringing forward a separate contempt measure against the lawmaker.
“It is ironic that by revealing the warrant application to further his effort to have Attorney General Eric Holder held in contempt, Rep. Issa was willing to flirt with his own potential contempt charge,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW, in a statement accompanying the complaints.
“Rather than releasing the warrant application to the media directly, which would clearly have been prosecutable, Rep. Issa inserted the information into the Congressional Record. This way, he shielded his otherwise illegal conduct behind the Speech or Debate Clause of the Constitution,” she said.
Sloan called on House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to hold Issa accountable for setting a dangerous precedent by releasing portions of the details of the wiretap applications.
The move by Issa puts the DOJ in a difficult political position. The agency is not likely to let the allegation of violating a court seal, which is an illegal act, go uninvestigated. But Republicans could attempt to paint such an investigation as an effort by the administration to retaliate against whistleblowers.
During Issa’s probe of Fast and Furious, the failed gun-tracking operation, he has focused on a series of six wiretap applications that federal officials implemented in an attempt to dismantle gun-trafficking rings in the Southwest.
The applications, which are under a federal court’s seal, were given to Issa by a mole with access to the documents. Issa has claimed they reveal that top-level Justice Department officials signed off on the documents and knew about the controversial “gun-walking” tactics used in Fast and Furious. Issa has called his source a “whistleblower” and refused to disclose his or her identity.
Sloan suggested that Issa’s office may not be totally guarded by protections of the speech and debate clause if any of them pointed reporters to the information that was entered into the Congressional Record, which came in the form of a letter Issa sent to his panel’s ranking member, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).
“Such actions, which could constitute ‘republication’ of the material, might not be subject to the same constitutional protections,” Sloan said.
“No member of Congress should be permitted to avoid accountability for deliberately violating federal law by cloaking himself in the Constitution. What could reflect more discreditably upon the House?” she said.
As part of CREW's complaints, the group cites an article published in The Hill last month detailing the revelation of the wiretap application details in the Congressional Record by Issa. The Hill was not directed by either Issa or his staff to look at the Congressional Record.
Issa's office did not take the charges lightly and fired back. A spokesman for Issa accused CREW of harboring Democratic sympathies and taking part in a "cover-up" that may have played a role in the killing of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry. Two guns found at Terry's murder scene were sold under Fast and Furious.
“It is shameful that an organization purporting to support good and transparent government is instead making itself complicit in an effort to cover-up a reckless government effort that contributed to the death of a Border Patrol agent," said Frederick Hill, a spokesman for Issa, in an emailed statement.
"While CREW’s liberal leanings and dependence on anonymous donors have long been known, this latest action further exposes the naked partisan nature of an organization run by Democratic operatives," Hill said.
Updated at 3:07 p.m.