Open records battle veers into Hillary emails, IRS targeting

A House oversight hearing Wednesday on the Obama administration’s compliance with open records laws erupted into battles over the IRS targeting controversy and the State Department’s handling of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonYoung Turks founder says Democrats should avoid repeat of 2016 and pick a progressive Young Turks founder says Democrats should avoid repeat of 2016 and pick a progressive Trump highlights polls that showed Clinton beating him by double digits MORE’s emails.

Rep. Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzFormer chairman appears at House Oversight contempt debate Former chairman appears at House Oversight contempt debate Republicans spend more than million at Trump properties MORE (R-Utah), the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, opened the hearing by lambasting Mary Howard, the director of privacy, governmental liaison and disclosure at the IRS who refused to appear until she was subpoenaed.

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Chaffetz then said that Howard — unlike all the other government witnesses — did not provide requested information about her agency’s compliance with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

“We expect you to respond to requests from the United States Congress,” Chaffetz said. “For you to not respond to this committee in a timely fashion … is not appropriate.”

“We will drag the IRS up here every single week if we have to.”

The hearing was the third and final witness panel in the Oversight Committee’s two-day examination of the government’s compliance with open records laws.

On Tuesday, journalists, lawyers and advocates vented before the committee about the backlog in obtaining records, complaining of excessive delays, overly redacted information and enormous fees.

During Wednesday’s session, Republican lawmakers peppered Howard with questions about former IRS official Lois Lerner’s emails about the scrutiny of Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt status.

Democrats, in turn, focused their attention on the State Department and the controversy over the private email account used by Hillary Clinton — the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination — when she was secretary.

They noted that the State Department’s chief FOIA official, Joyce Barr, confirmed in her testimony that the agency did not have some official e-mail records for former secretaries of State, including Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell. 

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said that Clinton’s decision to turn over 55,000 pages of emails from her time at the State Department is in “sharp contrast to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who admitted that he used a personal email account for official business all the time.”

“Secretary Powell did not preserve any of his official emails from his personal account, and he did not turn them over to the State Department,” he said.

Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) said the lack of emails from Powell was  “troubling” because he served at a time that the Bush administration was deliberating going to war in Iraq. In that light, the fuss over Clinton's emails seem like a double standard, he said.

“It seems like, in the case of Secretary Clinton, the way people handled their emails — at least it’s been suggested — that really determines her fitness of whether or not she could be president.” 

Rep. Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdyOur sad reality: Donald Trump is no Eisenhower GOP takes aim at Comey, Brennan House Dem calls on lawmakers to 'insulate' election process following Mueller report MORE (S.C.), who is leading the special House investigation into the terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, questioned how Clinton went two years without providing her emails to the department for archiving. He also asked how State processed FOIA requests before Clinton provided her emails earlier this year.

“We would still search all of our records — cables, decision memos, other types of documents that we keep, like agendas,” Barr said.

“Right, you can’t give it if you don’t have it,” Gowdy replied.

Other Republican lawmakers — including Reps. Jody Hice (Ga.) and Jim Jordan (Ohio) — trained their attention on IRS targeting and the creation of a team of lawyers at the IRS to produce documents for investigators.

“If someone makes a FOIA request to the IRS potentially now a target for retaliation?” asked Hice, referencing testimony on Tuesday from conservative lawyers that suggested the two could be connected.

Howard, the head of the IRS’s privacy office, said there was no danger of retaliation, and said that the FOIA office is separate from the rest of the agency.

When pressed, she added, “I have not shared any information with anyone who would be in a position to retaliate.”

The two-day set of hearings runs parallel to legislation that recently passed the committee to reform FOIA. At the end of the duo of marathon sessions, Chaffetz said he was looking for ways to improve upon the legislation.

“We are supposed to be self-critical, that’s what we do. That’s how we get better,” he said.

 

-- This story was updated at 4:34 p.m.