Bipartisan criticism of the Justice Department is soaring on Capitol Hill as the executive branch has repeatedly balked at answering congressional requests for information, according to lawmakers and aides.
According to documents obtained by The Hill and more than a dozen interviews with Democratic and Republican members and staffers, the Department of Justice (DoJ) is rebuffing Congress and its investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
We regularly provide briefings on topics upon request as well as send written replies to members of Congress based on individual inquiries.”
Congressional Democrats privately acknowledge that DoJ has not been as forthright as they would like, and letters signed by Capitol Hill Democrats to the department indicate their frustration.
However, House and Senate Democrats say they are close to receiving data they sought months ago on various topics, expressing hope that DoJ will work more cooperatively with them.
But Republican claims of DoJ’s “stonewalling” have them questioning whether Attorney General Eric HolderEric H. HolderPerez wins bid to lead Democratic Party Dems fear divisions will persist after DNC chair election Michael Moore touts Ellison for DNC chair: ‘We need fresh blood’ MORE is living up to the pledge of responsiveness and transparency he made during his Senate confirmation hearing nearly 18 months ago.
Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyGOP senator grilled over DeVos vote during town hall Big Pharma must address high drug prices ObamaCare fix hinges on Medicaid clash in Senate MORE (R-Iowa) has expressed concern that since 2009, the DoJ has refused to hand over information to the GAO on personnel vacancy trends within the FBI’s counterterrorism division.
At a standstill, the GAO, acting on a bipartisan request from Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick LeahyPatrick LeahyDem senator asks for 'top to bottom' review of Syria policy A guide to the committees: Senate Verizon angling to lower price of Yahoo purchase: report MORE (D-Vt.) and Grassley, wrote to the DoJ three weeks ago in an attempt to resolve the issue.
In the letter, the GAO referred to the DoJ’s continuous denial of information as “a systemic problem.” The DoJ, citing legal statutes, refused to deliver the data.
“This isn’t a partisan plea; both Republicans and Democrats are looking for answers from the administration, and it’s time for a response,” Grassley told The Hill.
While another co-signer of the initial GAO study request, House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Chairman Robert “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), urged patience in getting the information, he also said that if they didn’t get it soon, members may have to approach Holder about it directly.
“If it’s not resolved soon then we’ll have to have some additional conversations,” Scott said in an interview.
“But we expect it to be worked out on a staff level so that it doesn’t have to get escalated. We’re going to get what we need.”
Meanwhile, the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), outlined three issues to The Hill where he says the DoJ has refused to cooperate with his attempts at congressional oversight: the closure of the Guantánamo Bay military prison, allegations of criminal misconduct by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and the DoJ’s dismissal of the voter intimidation case, United States v. New Black Panther Party.
“Rather than making good on his promises [of] openness and transparency, President [Barack] Obama and his administration officials appear committed to a standard of secrecy and stonewalling of Congress,” Smith said. “All this silence, stonewalling and secrecy begs the question — what is the administration trying to hide?”
But House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) said that the DoJ has been so forthcoming with requested information that he has stopped having regular lunches at the department’s headquarters with Holder.
“I’ve known Eric Holder for years. I don’t have any problems with him at all,” Conyers said. “We stopped having lunches, because the access is really not a problem.”
Rep. Frank WolfFrank WolfBottom Line 10 most expensive House races Benghazi Report and Hillary: What it means for Philadelphia MORE (R-Va.), ranking member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science, which has jurisdiction over the DoJ’s budget, disagrees.
Wolf has written to Holder six times about the DoJ’s dismissal of the New Black Panther Party case. He says he received only one response from DoJ and that it was “woefully incomplete and, in places, inaccurate.”
“I think Holder is really creating a tremendous problem for the administration,” Wolf said. “Both political parties can’t get information from them.”
Exasperated by unanswered questions from DoJ and the Pentagon, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee subpoenaed the Obama administration earlier this year for records on the Fort Hood shooting.
Lawmakers say that DoJ’s reluctance to provide information to Congress has plagued administrations controlled by both parties. At Holder’s confirmation hearing in 2009, Grassley — speaking of previous administrations — said that “agencies are all too often untimely in responding to Congress and in the worst cases, totally unresponsive.”
But Rep. Louie GohmertLouie GohmertGiffords's husband to GOP rep: Don't 'hide behind' my wife's shooting to avoid town halls Giffords to lawmakers avoiding town halls: 'Have some courage' GOP rep invokes Giffords shooting as reason not to hold town hall MORE (R-Texas), the ranking member of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security, said the DoJ has gotten less transparent under Holder.
“It’s always been a problem, no matter Republican or Democratic DoJ, they want to play cards close to the vest, it’s the nature of the beast,” Gohmert said. “But it does seem to have gotten worse.”
The DoJ spokeswoman stated, “As part of the department’s commitment to oversight and transparency, we strive to provide prompt and complete responses to requests from Congress consistent with our litigation, law enforcement and national security obligations.”
Gohmert signed on to the initial bipartisan letter in 2008 asking the GAO to study personnel vacancies within the FBI’s counterterrorism division. At the time, the division was operating with only 62 percent of its funded staff, which hampered the FBI’s “most important mission” and prevented the agency from developing a staff of experienced counterterrorism experts, according to the letter signed by Sens. Leahy and Grassley and Reps. Conyers, Smith and Scott.
In letters to the GAO, the DoJ says it is not required to provide the GAO with vacancy rate information, citing a 1988 opinion issued by DoJ’s Office of Legal Counsel, which it says grants Congress — not the GAO — access to intelligence-related information, even personnel and human capital data.
But in a missive to the GAO, Sens. Grassley and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) wrote that this legal interpretation is wrong and hasn’t been employed in previous GAO requests for information.
The continued delays and refusals of information come more than seven months after The Hill first reported that the unmet congressional requests were impeding the oversight duties of members, namely through blocking GAO’s access to certain data.
A spokesman for the GAO said it has had trouble getting information from some government agencies. He declined to comment on any specific instances of denials because the GAO is in the process of updating a report of access problems for two senators.
“Generally speaking, we have very good cooperation overall but there are instances where we have specific problems,” said Chuck Young, the GAO spokesman.
According to a DoJ official, the department has replied to all 30 of GAO’s information requests over the past year, handing over nearly 3,200 pages of documents, with only minor redactions on matters pertaining to intelligence. Additionally, the FBI provided about 20 of its officials for GAO interviews on eight separate occasions, the source said.