By Jordy Yager - 05/15/13 11:51 PM EDT
Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday lashed out at Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif), calling his conduct “unacceptable and shameful.”
In a tense moment at a House Judiciary Committee hearing, Holder berated the lawmaker who led the successful effort in the House to hold him in contempt of Congress.
Issa, who seemed to brush off the rebuke, was questioning Holder about a deal the Justice Department’s top civil rights enforcer made with the city of St. Paul, Minn., to drop a False Claims Act case in exchange for the city ditching an unconnected appeal to the Supreme Court.
But the larger backdrop for the hearing was the controversy swirling around the Justice Department’s decision to subpoena phone records from The Associated Press in an investigation of national security leaks.
Holder has recused himself from that investigation, but came under fire from members of both parties.
The attorney general revealed that his own phone records have been reviewed as part of the DOJ’s investigation. He pledged to conduct an after-action analysis of the decision to seize records from the media after the initial investigation is complete.
Several Republicans criticized Holder for not being able to give them a firm timeline of exactly when he recused himself in the leaks case.
Holder said there was no paper trail of the recusal itself, but that it was “certainly” before the subpoenas were issued.
But the questioning over the leaks case was overshadowed, to an extent, by Holder’s harsh criticism of Issa.
It wasn’t the first time the two men have exchanged verbal blows.
At a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing in 2011, Issa told Holder that he should be “ashamed” for turning over documents that had been so heavily redacted that some of the pages were mostly blacked out.
The documents were a part of the committee’s investigation into the botched Fast and Furious gun tracking operation and contributed to Issa’s move to place Holder in contempt of Congress.
The contempt fight is far from over. Lawyers for Issa and Holder have been locked in a contentious court battle over whether the attorney general should be forced to fork over the internal DOJ documents and emails. After months of failed negotiations and court mediation, a federal judge is in the process of deciding whether the case has standing to be heard.
Holder said earlier this year that he does not have respect for the lawmakers who voted to place him in contempt of Congress.
“I think it’s a result of this kind of partisan sport that I think we engage in here in Washington far too often,” Holder said at the time.
“But I have to tell you that for me to really be affected by what happened, I’d have to have respect for the people who voted in that way. And I didn’t, so it didn’t have that huge an impact on me.”
Holder later clarified that he doesn’t respect the “process” that led to the contempt vote, as he did again on Wednesday when he was asked by Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho).
“Don’t you think that quote shows contempt for the Republican members of Congress that are here, that voted for this?” asked Labrador.
Holder said the contempt process was conducted in a disrespectful way and was “an attempt by certain people to get at this attorney general.”
“I respect the oversight role that the Congress plays,” Holder said. “This isn’t always a pleasant experience.”
“I don’t frankly think I’ve always been treated with a great deal of respect.”
As chairman of the Oversight panel, Issa has been investigating the involvement of Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez in the St. Paul deal.
President Obama has nominated Perez to serve as secretary of Labor and another person involved in the St. Paul agreement, U.S. Attorney for Minnesota B. Todd Jones, to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
Issa has asked the DOJ for copies of nearly 1,200 documents that allegedly explore the details of whether the agency’s deal was politically motivated or violated any federal laws.
The Republican chairman said his investigative team has seen nearly three dozen emails that relate to the case, but his staff has only seen the “to” and “from” fields in the communications, and not the actual contents nor the 1,200 documents that he has requested.
“Will you make them available to the committee based on a bipartisan request?” Issa asked.
Holder said he would look into the request that Issa and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) made last September for the materials. Oversight’s ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) last week joined with Issa in a letter requesting the documents.
“It’s not something that I’ve personally been involved in, but I will look at the request,” Holder said.
Issa told Holder that he only made the “to” and “from” fields of the emails available to congressional investigators because he was trying to hide the contents of the emails.
The remark prompted Holder to call Issa’s behavior “unacceptable and shameful.”
Undeterred, Issa resumed his line of questioning, citing one email that was allegedly sent to Melanie Barnes, domestic policy counsel at the White House.
The lawmakers contend that the DOJ asked St. Paul city attorneys to drop a Supreme Court case that could have hampered the government’s ability to collect large financial settlements from banks that it sues for housing discrimination.
In return, Issa and Grassley say, the DOJ agreed to drop an unrelated lawsuit against the city, which charged that St. Paul officials were not properly using federal funds geared toward improving low-income job opportunities. If the DOJ had won that case, the government could have recouped as much as $180 million in taxpayer funds, the lawmakers said.
Across the Capitol, Grassley took to the Senate floor to slam Perez’s tenure as head of the civil rights division, saying that he “regrets” his confirmation vote in favor of him, while outlining the details of the St. Paul case for the Congressional Record.
“The evidence makes clear that Mr. Perez took steps to cover up the fact that he had bartered away the False Claims Act cases,” Grassley said in a floor statement.
“I do not believe Mr. Perez gave us the straight story when he was called upon to answer questions about this case, and for that reason I will strongly oppose his nomination.”