WASHINGTON — The Department of Justice has told the House of Representatives that it will not pursue a criminal contempt of Congress citation against its boss, Attorney General Eric Holder, because it believes his refusal to release internal documents "does not constitute a crime."
In a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, sent even before House Republicans could refer the criminal contempt citation for prosecution, Deputy Attorney General James Cole cited President Barack Obama's assertion of executive privilege and other obstacles in refusing to cooperate.
But House Republicans passed a second, civil contempt citation that allows them to hire their own attorney and legal staff to file a civil lawsuit asking a judge to force Holder to turn over 1,500 pages of documents related to Operation Fast and Furious, a flawed gun-tracking investigation focused on Phoenix-area gun shops by Justice's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. It is his refusal to do so that brought the two contempt citations passed by the House on Thursday evening.
Cole's letter arrived on Capitol Hill at 7 p.m. Thursday, just two hours after the House passed the contempt citation and before the speaker could forward it to Ronald Machen, the U.S. attorney in Washington.
Frederick Hill, a spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has been authorized to find an outside attorney and legal staff and proceed with the civil lawsuit.
In Fast and Furious, ATF agents abandoned the agency's usual practice of intercepting all weapons they believed to be illicitly purchased. Instead, the goal of the tactic known as "gun-walking" was to track such weapons to high-level arms traffickers.
Issa says senior Justice Department officials were aware of the "gun walking" tactics in Fast and Furious. Holder and other department officials say they were not aware of the tactics and did not approve Fast and Furious.