WASHINGTON — Despite all signs that the Bush administration will block him, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee will pursue criminal contempt charges against White House officials for refusing to comply with subpoenas in an investigation into last year's firings of nine U.S. attorneys.
The decision Monday by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., may be a political calculation to cast more negative attention on the firings.
Legal experts said Conyers' scheduling of a Wednesday committee vote to initiate contempt of Congress proceedings against White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers also may be a way to exhaust legal remedies before pursuing a civil case. A majority of the House of Representatives would have to sign off on criminal contempt proceedings as well.
Even then, experts said, Congress cannot force a U.S. attorney to bring criminal cases if the Justice Department decides the aides were legitimately carrying out the president's instructions on an executive privilege claim. Both the Reagan and Clinton Justice Departments took that position.
President Bush has invoked executive privilege to block the release of his advisers' internal correspondence and testimony regarding the firings. Democrats are investigating whether the firings were connected to elections or corruption investigations. The White House has maintained that U.S. attorneys serve at the president's pleasure and that any connection to voter fraud inquiries or corruption cases was coincidental.
"It's pretty clear that nothing is going to happen" criminally, said Martin Lederman, a visiting law professor at Georgetown University and a former Justice Department lawyer. "So if the U.S. attorney says 'no,' (lawmakers) can say they did everything the statute told them to do — even if their aim is to go ahead with a civil proceeding."
Meanwhile, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who has faced calls from members of Congress to resign because of his inability to answer basic questions about the firings controversy, plans to tell the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that he'll stay on the job.
"I could walk away or I could devote my time, effort and energy to fix the problems," Gonzales says in prepared remarks submitted a day in advance of the hearing. "Since I have never been one to quit, I decided that the best course of action was to remain here and fix the problems."
White House spokesman Tony Snow said Monday that any final decision about criminal contempt would be up to the Justice Department, but that "certainly the tradition when it comes to dealing with such matters has been one in which, for separation of powers reasons, the Justice Department has, in fact, been reluctant to do such things."
Conyers called his move a "reluctant but necessary decision" and said of White House officials, "It is still my hope that they will reconsider."
Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the top Republican on Conyers' panel, called the decision to pursue contempt of Congress citations "a misuse of congressional power for purely political reasons."