Issa questions Democrats on oversight

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is questioning House Democrats’ commitment to providing tough oversight, citing upcoming briefings from BP and others on the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster as part of his concerns.


Issa, the aggressive senior Republican on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee who has repeatedly clashed with Democratic Chairman Edolphus Towns (N.Y.), is incensed the panel’s majority does not require transcribed interviews in significant investigations.

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In the coming days, the committee will receive briefings from BP, the American Petroleum Institute, Halliburton, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Council on Environmental Quality. Instead of requiring written transcripts of the testimony, the majority staff, according to Issa, has decided to accept informal briefings by teleconference.

“Despite agreements between our staffs to conduct transcribed interviews of all persons connected to this investigation, your staff has instead decided to accept informal briefings by teleconference,” Issa wrote in a letter to Towns. “This informal manner of questioning establishes the wrong precedent for this investigation. Moreover, it gives the impression that your staff is not serious about conducting a thorough and responsible review of the facts.”

The letter calls on Towns to start conducting transcribed interviews of witnesses in all “significant” committee investigations and notes the two previous chairmen of the panel, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), required such written records.

Towns’s spokeswoman, Jenny Thalheimer Rosenberg, said that Towns received the letter and intends to speak with Issa about his concerns. She did not respond to a question about whether the Gulf of Mexico oil spill briefings would be conducted by teleconference with no written transcript.

In the two years Waxman was chairman, the panel conducted more than 60 transcribed interviews or depositions on a variety of topics. Last month, former U.S. Special Counsel Scott Bloch pleaded guilty to criminal contempt of Congress for withholding pertinent information from the Oversight panel, and the transcribed interview of Bloch’s testimony before the committee was “the essential piece of evidence,” Issa wrote Towns.

When Davis chaired the panel, transcribed interviews with Major League Baseball stars Miguel Tejada and Roger Clemens led to Tejada pleading guilty last year to lying to Congress about using steroids and an ongoing Justice Department investigation of Clemens’s steroid use.

Issa’s office details two problems that occurred during recent investigations that could have been avoided if the panel required transcribed interviews with witnesses.

During a hearing on Tylenol’s recall on May 27, the majority staff asked the minority staff to consult its handwritten notes from an earlier interview of Peter Luter, president of McNeil Consumer Healthcare, because there was a discrepancy between the FDA’s testimony and what Luther had told the panel during his interview.

At the hearing, the FDA had testified that McNeil Consumer Healthcare, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, had recalled 136 million bottles, but committee staff recalled Luther stating that 6 million bottles had been recalled. Issa had requested that interviews during this investigation be transcribed, but Towns had preferred informal handwritten accounts.

Issa reminded Towns in the letter that the FDA can impose criminal sanctions for violations of its regulations.

“It’s unclear at this point that the conduct of McNeil officials rises to this level,” he wrote. “It would be prudent for the committee to transcribe testimony of these officials.”

Written transcripts would have been vital in an ongoing subcommittee investigation of government contracting abuses in Afghanistan as well.

Since February, the National Security and Foreign Affairs subcommittee has investigated military and civilian employees connected with a trucking contract in Afghanistan after complaints the U.S. government is indirectly funding the Taliban through payoffs by Afghan-owned private security contractors.

The majority has conducted more than 10 witness interviews as part of the probe — all informal and recorded only through handwritten notes.

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One interview involved questions posed to three witnesses, one of whom claimed not to speak English, according to a GOP committee aide.

During these interviews, the other two witnesses served as translators and answered questions from the third. Committee investigators did not speak the witness’s language and could not evaluate the accuracy of the translation of any of the conversations among the witnesses that took place before they provided answers. Written transcripts of the conversations, once translated, could have provided useful information to committee staff about the conversations.

“Despite the seriousness of the matter, and notwithstanding repeated requests by my staff, dozens of witness interviews have not been transcribed,” Issa continued. “Instead, your staff has assured my staff that it would memorialize its notes in memoranda and share them with us. This has not been happening on a routine basis.”