WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked the Justice Department Thursday to open a grand jury investigation into whether President Bush's chief of staff and former counsel should be prosecuted for contempt of Congress.
Pelosi, D-Calif., demanded that the department pursue misdemeanor charges against former White House counsel Harriet Miers for refusing to testify to Congress about the firings of federal prosecutors in 2006 and against chief of staff Josh Bolten for failing to turn over White House documents related to the dismissals.
She gave Attorney General Michael Mukasey one week to respond and said refusal to take the matter to a grand jury will result in the House's filing a lawsuit against the Bush administration.
The White House branded the request "truly contemptible." The Justice Department said it had received Pelosi's request and anticipated providing further guidance after Mukasey's review. It noted "long-standing department precedent" in such cases against letting a U.S. attorney refer a congressional contempt citation to a grand jury or prosecute an executive branch.
The Democratic-controlled House voted two weeks ago to hold Bolten and Miers in contempt for failing to cooperate with committee investigations.
"There is no authority by which persons may wholly ignore a subpoena and fail to appear as directed because a president unilaterally instructs them to do so," Pelosi wrote Mukasey. She noted that Congress subpoenaed Miers to appear before the House Judiciary Committee, which is investigating the firings. "Surely, your department would not tolerate that type of action if the witness were subpoenaed to a federal grand jury."
She added: "Short of a formal assertion of executive privilege, which cannot be made in this case, there is no authority that permits a president to advise anyone to ignore a duly issued congressional subpoena for documents."
White House spokesman Tony Fratto and House GOP leader John Boehner said the House should focus on passing legislation allowing the government to more easily eavesdrop on phone calls and e-mails of suspected terrorists.
Bush also pressed on that front again Thursday, urging Congress at a news conference to grant telecom companies immunity from class-action lawsuits for cooperating with U.S. intelligence services in monitoring terrorist communications.
"If any of these companies helped us, they did so after being told by our country their assistance was legal," he said.
About 40 suits have been filed in U.S. courts against telecommunications companies. Some lawmakers, including Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., say that not allowing the suits to go forward would be unfair to people on whom the government may have eavesdropped illegally.
A temporary surveillance law expired nearly two weeks ago.