By Bernie Becker - 03/14/14 02:34 PM EDT
House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has rejected a Democratic claim that his efforts to hold a former Internal Revenue Service official in contempt have been compromised, calling those assertions “wrong on the facts and the law.”
Issa accuses Cummings in the Friday letter of essentially acting as a defense attorney for Lerner, whom Republicans on the panel have ruled has waived her Fifth Amendment rights.
“Your tactics undermine the committee's investigative prerogatives and harm the institutional interests of the House of Representatives,” Issa wrote to Cummings.
The California Republican also suggested that Cummings has impeded committee investigations out of loyalty to the White House and other Democrats.
"Even though the White House helped orchestrate your ascension to ranking member, I have encouraged, and continue to encourage, you to subordinate your political loyalties to the institutional interests of the committee and the House, especially in cases like this where obstructing the committee's work risks permanently disadvantaging Congress in its interactions with the executive branch,” he added.
The letter comes just a day after House Democrats pushed a measure – ultimately voted down – that would have formally rebuked Issa for cutting Cummings’s microphone at a hearing last week and forced him to apologize from the chamber floor.
Top Republicans, including Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), have said they believe the House should seek contempt charges against Lerner, who invoked the Fifth Amendment for a second time in the March 5 hearing.
Issa had hoped to move on those charges as soon as this week, but those efforts are on hold after the fireworks at last week’s hearings left even some Republicans grumbling about the Oversight chairman. Issa later apologized to Cummings.
Cummings had circulated an analysis this week from two veteran legislative analysts and lawyers that said that Issa had botched his shot at holding Lerner in contempt, by not making clear that she faced contempt charges if she did not answer questions. Republicans have insisted in recent weeks that Lerner’s testimony is crucial to their investigation into the IRS’s treatment of tax-exempt 501(c)(4) groups.
In his response, Issa questioned the impartiality of the analysis from Morton Rosenberg and Stan Brand, who was House counsel when Democrats controlled the chamber in the 1970s and 1980s.
Issa also insisted that Lerner knew full well she was at risk of contempt charges, and argued that courts don’t require congressional committees to provide “certain magic words” to witnesses.
"You and your lawyers and consultants say, repeatedly, that our committee did not provide 'certainty for the witness and her counsel that a contempt prosecution was inevitable,' " Issa wrote.
"But as a longtime member of the House of Representatives, you know as well as I do that that is a certainty that neither I, nor anyone else can provide," he added, noting he could not guarantee that the Justice Department would prosecute Lerner or that the House would vote to hold her in contempt.
Cummings responded in a statement that seven experts have now openly said that Issa dropped the ball on contempt, and that the Oversight chairman's letter wasn't backed by House counsel or any outside experts.
"The entire country has now seen firsthand how Chairman Issa runs this Committee in violation of House Rules, and no reasonable person would accept his legal views over those of the United States Supreme Court," Cummings said. "Contrary to Chairman Issa's baseless accusations, we are not defending Lois Lerner or her actions — we are defending the Constitution and the rights it guarantees to all Americans."