Bryan Pagliano, a former State Department staffer who helped to set up Hillary Clinton’s private e-mail server, has informed several congressional committees, including the House Select Committee on Benghazi and the Senate Judiciary Committee, that he will invoke the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination if forced to appear before those committees to answer questions about that subject. Pagliano’s attorney cited “the ongoing FBI inquiry into the security of Clinton’s e-mail system” as the basis for his fear of possible incrimination.
In connection with the Lois Lerner matter, we have discussed the various legal issues related to a former government official’s invocation of the Fifth Amendment before Congress. One of the possible responses to such invocation is for the congressional committee to grant the witness immunity, thereby preventing his congressional testimony from being used against him in a future prosecution. Once such immunity is granted, the witness no longer has the legal right to refuse to answer questions before the committee based on the Fifth Amendment.
In theory, the immunity granted extends only to the actual use of the congressional testimony, but in practice it becomes nearly impossible to prosecute the congressional witness for any crime related to the subject of that testimony. Thus, if the committee believes that the witness may truly face the possibility of prosecution, it may be reluctant to grant immunity. This is one of the primary reasons that congressional grants of immunity are fairly rare (the last one given was to Monica Goodling in 2007 by the House Judiciary Committee).
With respect to Pagliano, however, this would hardly seem to be a serious issue. Unlike Lerner, he is not a senior or central figure in the investigation. The chances of his facing any kind of criminal jeopardy for setting up a private e-mail server (which by definition had to have occurred before any classified e-mails were sent through that server) would seem extremely remote.
In any event, the process of granting immunity allows the executive branch, in the person of the Attorney General, to express any concerns about the grant of immunity that it may have. The congressional committee must notify the Attorney General of its intent to seek the immunity order and thus the Attorney General has the opportunity to inform the committee of any objections to the grant of immunity. However, while the Attorney General has the power to delay the grant of immunity by up to 20 days, see 18 U.S.C. § 6005 (c), she has no power to veto or ultimately stop it from being granted. See Application of U.S. Senate Sel. Comm. on Pres. Campaign Activities, 361 F.Supp. 1270, 1276 (D.D.C. 1973).
Applying for immunity requires a vote of either two-thirds of the congressional committee or a majority of the full House or Senate. Thus, while the Attorney General cannot stop the grant of immunity, the committee minority can at least force the matter to full body if it objects to the grant. In the circumstances of this case, it seems to me it would be difficult to make a credible argument as to why Pagliano shouldn’t receive immunity. But the process gives everyone an ample opportunity to express their views.