Resources on Congressional Oversight and Executive-Legislative Information Disputes

As there appears to a current demand for resources on congressional oversight, executive privilege and the process for resolving executive-legislative disputes over information, I thought I would post a few suggestions as to places to look for such materials. First, there is this Congressional Investigations Research Page hosted by Georgetown Law (hat tip: Andy Wright). Second, the Congressional Oversight Manual has a list of selected readings starting at page 136. Third, Daniel Schuman has been collecting resources on the congressional oversight and subpoena power, particularly reform proposals.

Finally, here is a link to a 2002 brief filed by BLAG in Waxman v. Evans, which describes in some detail how executive-legislative information disputes have been resolved historically. To the best of my knowledge, this document has not previously been available on line.

Mort Rosenberg on The Road to Effective Enforcement of House Committee Subpoenas

Mort Rosenberg notes that his proposal for reviving the House’s inherent contempt power goes beyond just substituting monetary fines for incarceration as the primary means of coercing compliance with congressional subpoenas. He also recommends that the House consider appointing outside counsel to prosecute contemnors. He argues as follows:

There is . . . sound support for direct appointment by the Speaker of a private attorney to conduct such prosecutions in law, history and practice. As I have indicated, the Supreme Court in Anderson v.Dunn (1821) upheld the constitutionality of the use of inherent contempt by the House and based that ruling on the analogy to its recognition of the inherent power of judges to protect their judicial integrity and authority from attack by means of contempt citations. It particularly noted that no statutory authorization was necessary because such self-protective actions were critical to the maintenance of the judiciary’s institutional independence. However, the Anderson Court’s  qualification that any imposition of jail time could not exceed the session in which the contempt occurred ultimately led to the legislative decision in 1857 to provide the alternative possibility of a criminal contempt prosecution for failures to comply with committee subpoenas. The legislative history of that enactment makes it clear that it was to apply to executive branch officials. Prosecutions under that law were to be conducted by United States Attorneys. What has been currently and conveniently overlooked by DOJ is that at that time United States Attorneys were independent contract employees; there was no Justice Department until 1870.  It must be presumed that Congress was aware of this and was simply authorizing the Speaker to  utilize those non-governmental contract attorneys in the same manner that the Andersoncourt recognized that judges could appoint private prosecutors to vindicate the integrity of their judicial responsibilities, an understanding that the Supreme Court clearly articulated in its 1987 ruling in Young v. U.S. ex re Louis Vuitton upholding court appointment of a private sector attorney to prosecute its contempt citation, which was reiterated the next year in its ruling in Morrison v. Olson. The most recent recognition of this inherent institutional authority was in the 9th Circuit’s October 2018 en banc ruling in U.S. v. Arpaio. These consistent judicial rulings note that this inherent institutional self-protective authority needs no statutory basis and is so constitutionally indispensable that it may not be obstructed by either Congress or the Executive or abandoned by the Judiciary. The indisputable legal analogy to each House’s recognized self-protective authority is evident.

Finally, the appointment of two private prosecutors to assist in the Senate’s Teapot Dome investigation arguably provides further corroboration. The Senate’s inquiry had stalled and after Harding died and was succeeded by Coolidge, Attorney General Daugherty remained in office despite being suspected of deep complicity in the oil lease scandal. The Senate Committee, with the concurrence of Coolidge, agreed to a joint resolution for the appointment of two private counsels to assist in the Senate’s investigation of the lawfulness of the oil eases and to recapture the lost assets. The joint resolution specifically prohibited any DOJ role in their investigation or litigation actions. When Daugherty was forced to resign and a new Attorney General was confirmed a Senate resolution was passed directing a Senate committee investigation of corruption in DOJ during Daugherty’s leadership. The new AG retained the two private counsel as special assistants who brought the inherent contempt citation against Daugherty’s brother that resulted in the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in McGrain v Daugherty (1927), which established Congress’s current broad investigatory powers, and U.S. v. Sinclair (1929) allowing a criminal citation for refusing to answer committee questions on the ground that he was the subject of a pending civil action regarding the oil leases.

The long standing judicial recognition of the analogous self-protective authorities of the Houses of Congress and judges should give rise to consideration of such a prosecutorial appointment by House authorization upon a vote of a criminal contempt citation by the House. There are plausible grounds for success and the Supreme Court’s recognition of the legitimacy of concurrent or seriatum inherent and criminal contempt citations provides additional constitutional support. The availability of both inherent and criminal processes would revive the historic leverage that made the threat of congressional subpoena enforcement so formidable and successful.

Mort’s full piece may be read here.

 

Recalibrating the “Subpoena Cannon”

(I know some artillery expert from Quora is going to correct my title but you get the idea).

To continue the martial metaphors, the House’s investigatory offensive against the Trump administration is meeting stiff resistance on all fronts or, one might say, running into a stone wall. The administration is refusing to cooperate with any oversight or investigation it considers to be hostile or partisan (so, basically all of them). This noncooperation can take the form of refusing to comply with document requests or subpoenas outright, simply ignoring them, delaying a final response (as in the case of the Ways & Means committee request to the treasury secretary for the Trump tax returns), placing conditions on compliance (as where the White House is refusing to allow witnesses to testify at congressional depositions unless a representative from the counsel’s office is also allowed to attend), instructing or encouraging former executive officials or others not to comply with congressional demands (as the administration apparently plans to do with respect to the Judiciary committee subpoena to former White House counsel Don McGahn), and even bringing legal action to prevent third parties from providing information to Congress (as discussed in my last post).

The situation has given rise to much handwringing in Congress, where House Democrats are predictably characterizing the administration’s actions as “massive, unprecedented obstruction.” The frustration is entirely understandable, but I agree with Andy Wright that it is a bit overwrought to describe the situation as a “constitutional crisis,” particularly at this early stage. The basic problems are ones faced by Congress in every administration, even though the scope of the investigations and sheer number of information disputes is unusual. Moreover, while it may be accurate to describe the administration as engaged in unprecedented stonewalling, it should also be remembered that the Mueller report provides Congress with an exceptional degree of visibility into the areas of the administration about which it is most concerned.

It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that the House faces a difficult set of challenges in responding to the administration’s recalcitrance because there is no clearly established mechanism for enforcing congressional subpoenas against the executive branch. If an executive branch official refuses to testify or produce documents based on the assertion of executive privilege at the direction of the president, the Justice Department has long maintained that it will not (and constitutionally may not) prosecute the official for contempt of Congress. See, e.g.,  Response to Congressional Requests for Information Regarding Decisions made Under the Independent Counsel Act, 10 OLC 68, 85 (Apr. 28, 1986). Thus, while a House committee may vote to hold this official in contempt and report the contempt to the full House, which in turn may adopt a resolution referring the matter to the U.S. attorney pursuant to 2 U.S.C. § 194, the U.S. attorney will not present the matter to a grand jury and thus the House’s action will be largely symbolic.

It should be noted, however, that this calculus is arguably somewhat different in the case of a former executive branch official. While it is clear that the executive branch would contend that a former official should obey the president’s instructions as to the assertion of executive privilege, and it is highly likely that it would employ similar reasoning to avoid presenting any contempt citation to a grand jury, there is at least some possibility that a future administration might reach a different conclusion, placing the former official in legal jeopardy. At the very least, the former official might worry that having a formal citation of contempt by the House on the record might generate legal expenses or other collateral consequences down the road.

With criminal contempt largely useless, then, the House is considering other options, including inherent contempt. Again, as readers well know, this is the process by which the House (or Senate) can send the Sergeant at Arms to take a recalcitrant witness into custody, bring him before the bar of the house to explain his refusal to testify, and remand him to custody until he changes his mind. Although members of Congress are starting to make noises about reviving this process (something that happens periodically whenever there is divided government), these threats are not very credible in light of the fact that the House has not used it in about a century.

To solve that problem, the estimable Mort Rosenberg has proposed a House rule that would use fines, rather than arrest and detention, as the primary means of forcing executive branch officials to comply with congressional subpoenas. Judiciary committee chairman Nadler has apparently raised this as a way “to put teeth in his party’s numerous investigative inquiries, many of which Trump officials are stonewalling or simply ignoring.”

Not surprisingly, the Justice Department has suggested that it would be unconstitutional to employ inherent contempt against executive branch officials in situations where (it claims) separation of powers principles prohibit the use of criminal contempt. See 10 OLC at 86. There are also obvious practical problems that would be involved with attempting to detain an executive official. See id. (“it seems most unlikely that Congress would dispatch the Sergeant-at-Arms to arrest and imprison an Executive Branch official who claimed executive privilege”). The House’s “cannon” is, after all, only metaphorical, and the executive branch has the Sergeant at Arms and the Capitol Police pretty well out-gunned. Imposing fines instead of imprisonment might mitigate, or at least postpone, this problem, but if the House wanted to have this option available it should have included it in the rules package that was adopted at the beginning of the congress.

Another suggestion is that the House could use political remedies, such as the appropriations process, to punish officials or agencies that refuse to comply with congressional demands for information. Professor Josh Chafetz is a big proponent of this technique. It seems to me that this can be effective when the resistance to congressional demands is coming from the agency level, but it is much harder to do when it is coming from the president (and harder still with this president). To the extent the House has leverage in the appropriations process vis a vis the Senate and the president, it is likely to use it for higher priority items than winning disputes over information access. Put another way, I don’t see the House shutting down the government to get an unredacted copy of the Mueller report.

This leaves what is most commonly thought of as the House’s best legal remedy, a civil action seeking declaratory or injunctive relief to enforce its right to obtain information. Most commonly, this would take the form of an action to enforce a subpoena, but other actions are also possible. For example, the Ways & Means committee could bring suit to enforce its statutory rights to obtain tax return information under 26 U.S.C. § 6103(f). Note that such an action would be analogous to an action to enforce congressional rights to information under 5 U.S.C. § 2954 (commonly known as the Rule of Seven), which is at issue in the case of Cummings v. Murphy currently pending in the D.C. Circuit (though likely presenting a stronger case for congressional standing than Cummings if the committee’s action were authorized by House resolution).

Civil enforcement of subpoenas presents its own set of challenges, namely (1) the absence of any clearly defined process for bringing such actions and unsettled legal issues of justiciability; (2) the fact that courts do not like to be in the middle of political disputes between the legislative and executive branches; and (3) the length of time that it would take to obtain a final enforceable court order, particularly because even if the House prevails at the district court level there will be inevitable appeals to the D.C. Circuit and the Supreme Court. Some of these problems could have been mitigated had the House adopted a brilliant proposed rule (still my blog) on civil enforcement of subpoenas, but alas it failed to do so. Nevertheless, civil enforcement remains the most promising avenue for legal vindication of the House’s constitutional rights. Continue reading “Recalibrating the “Subpoena Cannon””

The Justice Department’s Inventive New Process for (Not) Responding to Congressional Questions

Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker was scheduled to appear before the House Committee on the Judiciary tomorrow. According to the latest communication by the Department of Justice, however, he may refuse to appear because the committee has authorized a subpoena for his testimony (even though the subpoena has not actually been served on him). [Update: it seems he will appear after all].

This unusual chain of events began in early January, when Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler invited Whitaker to testify before the committee at a general oversight hearing regarding the Department of Justice’s operations. Nadler identified a broad range of areas regarding which the committee would likely have questions. Some of these areas related specifically to the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller; others involved completely unrelated areas. The former included questions about Whitaker’s decision not to recuse himself from matters involving the investigation and the question of how the investigation is currently being supervised at the Department of Justice. In addition, Nadler notes “[w]e must discuss the impact of the President’s near-daily statements attacking the integrity of the Department of Justice, the FBI, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.”

After some back and forth over scheduling, Whitaker agreed to testify at a February 8 hearing. On January 22, Nadler sent him a follow-up letter listing a series of specific questions Whitaker could expect to be asked at the hearing. Some of these questions fell clearly within the subjects delineated in Nadler’s earlier letter; others were arguably beyond the scope. For example, some of the questions focused on discussions with President Trump about the investigation by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, something that was not specifically mentioned in Nadler’s first letter but is closely related the Special Counsel’s investigation as well as Trump’s general attacks on the Department of Justice.

In any event, Nadler explained that he was sending these questions because “your responses may implicate communications with the President of the United States.” Nadler directed Whitaker to “take any steps that may be necessary for the White House to consider these communications and for the President to determine whether he will invoke executive privilege.” Absent such a formal invocation of privilege by the president, Nadler stated “I will expect you to answer these questions fully and to the best of your knowledge.”

Earlier today, the committee held a business meeting for the purpose of authorizing a testimonial subpoena to Whitaker. According to Nadler, this was necessary “[i]n an abundance of caution to ensure Mr. Whitaker both appears in the hearing room on Friday morning and answers our questions cleanly . . . .”

As a legal matter, it is not clear why this step was deemed necessary. If Whitaker had simply failed to show up at the hearing after saying that he would (which seems unlikely), the committee would presumably have had to subpoena him for a future hearing, which could be easily done whether or not a subpoena had previously been authorized. On the other hand, if Whitaker showed up voluntarily, he would be under the same obligation to answer questions as he would have been under subpoena. See Sinclair v. United States, 279 U.S. 263, 291 (1929) (holding that the congressional contempt statute’s penalty for refusing to answer questions “plainly extends to a case where a person voluntarily appears as a witness without being summoned as well as to the case of one being required to attend.”).

In any event, the Department of Justice (through Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs Stephen E. Boyd) responded to the committee’s authorization of a subpoena by demanding a written assurance “that the Committee will not issue a subpoena to the Acting Attorney General on or before February 8, and that the Committee will engage in good faith negotiations with the Department before issuing a subpoena.”

The first part of this demand is simply the flip side of the committee’s position and is rather silly. If Whitaker shows up at the hearing, there is no reason for the committee to serve him with a subpoena. Conversely, there is no reason to demand that the committee not serve him with a subpoena if he shows up. It really does not matter.

The second part of the demand, however, is different. The Department is using the committee’s theatrical and unnecessary authorization of a subpoena as an opportunity to establish a new and (as far as I know) unprecedented position regarding the process for responding to congressional questions at a hearing. According to Boyd’s letter, the appropriate process for responding to questions that may implicate executive privilege is that first the committee must ask the questions at a hearing in which the witness appears voluntarily, then there must be a period of negotiation in which the parties attempt to resolve differences and, only then, if an accommodation cannot be reached, the committee may issue a subpoena and the president may choose to formally invoke executive privilege.

This is ridiculous. In support of this theory, Boyd quotes an opinion by the once (and presumably future) Attorney General, Bill Barr. But Barr’s opinion related to the process for producing documents, not oral testimony. Although there is nothing prohibiting a committee from issuing a document subpoena in the first instance, the ordinary process is to begin with a document request, have a period of negotiation and the proceed to a subpoena. Indeed, my proposed House rule would formalize that process and add deadlines to ensure that committees are able to get a final response (including a decision by the president whether or not to invoke executive privilege) within a timeframe that is useful for fulfilling their oversight functions.

The proposed rule does not address oral testimony, however, because there the process is different. A committee is free to ask witnesses any questions pertinent to a matter within the committee’s jurisdiction. If the witness declines to answer on grounds of executive privilege (or, more precisely, that the question is one on which the president might decide to invoke executive privilege), theoretically the committee could move immediately to hold the witness in contempt. There is no need to issue a subsequent subpoena because, as we have already seen, the witness is under a legal obligation to answer at the time the questions are asked. As a matter both of practice and practicality, however, the committee should give the witness an opportunity to consult with White House counsel and others to determine whether the president intends to formally invoke the privilege before moving forward with contempt.

The problem is that there is no deadline within which the president must make this decision. The executive branch can (and does) drag the process out indefinitely, often citing the layers of legal counsel that must be consulted before a decision is reached (agency counsel, if applicable, then the Office of Legal Counsel, then the Attorney General, then the White House counsel, etc.). If Congress proceeds with contempt in the meantime, the president can invoke executive privilege immediately before the final contempt vote or even thereafter. And there is little Congress can do about it.

By informing Whitaker of the specific questions before the hearing, Chairman Nadler is cleverly trying to speed up this process (in a manner analogous to my proposed rule on document subpoenas). Whitaker is clearly on notice as to the types of questions that will be asked and has had an opportunity to consult with others in the Department and the White House as to where to draw the lines. But it would not be advisable to press this too far. Until the hearing is actually held, there is no way to say for sure what questions will be asked, whether the committee will be satisfied with Whitaker’s answers to particular questions, what follow up questions might be asked, etc. So assuming that the president does not formally invoke executive privilege before the hearing, the committee should provide Whitaker with a limited but reasonable period of time to determine whether the privilege will be invoked. If the time period expires without any invocation, the committee will be in as strong a position as possible to move forward with contempt.

Of course, the committee still has the problem of how to enforce the contempt. But we will leave that problem for another day.

Congressional Subpoenas, Contempt, and Executive Privilege: Molly Reynolds and Stan Brand Discuss

There will undoubtedly be a lot of content appearing in the next few months about congressional subpoenas and how to enforce them, along with the related topics of contempt of Congress and executive privilege. Most of this will be review for the regular readers of this blog (you can click on the “congressional investigations,” “contempt of Congress” or “executive privilege” categories to see Point of Order’s prior posts on these topics), but you still might want to check out this podcast featuring Molly Reynolds of Brookings and former House General Counsel Stan Brand, which provides a good overview of the subject as well as some history of the House Counsel’s office (you can find out, for example, why Neil Gorsuch might not be the biggest fan of the congressional subpoena power).

As Stan explains, the biggest problem with congressional subpoenas is that there is no clearly established mechanism to enforce them against the executive branch. Civil contempt is the only currently usable method, but it faces a number of obstacles, the greatest of which is that it is somewhere between extremely difficult and impossible to get a resolution within the time frame of a two-year congress. This gives the Justice Department and its clients a strong incentive to delay as much as possible, knowing that by the time a court gets around to deciding the dispute, it is likely that the whole matter will be moot.

As it happens, I have proposed a reform to House rules designed to address this problem (you can read about it here). Thus far the House in its wisdom has not seen fit to adopt this proposal, but perhaps someone will bring it to the attention of the new House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.

An Update on Parliament’s Contempt Power

So at virtually the same time I told you that Parliament’s contempt power was in a state of desuetude, this happened. The House of Commons held the British government in contempt for its failure to publish the Attorney General’s legal advice regarding Brexit as the House had previously demanded.

To be sure, my prior post related to the use of contempt to impose punitive measures such as fines or imprisonment. These were not involved in yesterday’s contempt vote, which the article describes as “largely symbolic.” Yet it appears that the government intends to comply with the Commons’ demands as a consequence of the contempt vote. Moreover, while the use of contempt to impose rebukes is more common than fines or imprisonment, it is still extremely rare. According to this 2012 analysis I referred to yesterday, the last time someone was called to the bar of the house to be admonished by the Speaker was in the 1956-57 session. And it is apparently the first time ever that the British government itself has been held in contempt.

It should be noted that Congress’s inherent power of contempt derives from Parliament’s power (and thus has been recognized as being an “inherent” part of the legislative power conveyed in Article I). From time to time, the idea of using the inherent contempt power against a recalcitrant executive branch has been broached, but the idea always founders on practical considerations (e.g., what happens if the recalcitrant executive official is protected by security that does not want to surrender him/her to the custody of the Sergeant at Arms?).

If the House (or Senate) were to follow the procedure apparently used in the House of Commons yesterday, however, these problems largely disappear. The Commons simply voted on a resolution holding the government in contempt, without following the normal practice of referring the matter to the Committee on Privileges. No trial was held, nor was anyone (it appears) called to the bar of the house.

If Congress were to follow such a process, it would more closely resemble a censure or similar resolution, as opposed to a finding of contempt. It could be argued that such a largely symbolic action would have little impact in our system, where the continuation of the government does not depend on majority support in the legislature. On the other hand, if contempt were used, it would be possible for a trial to be held, with an executive official (or the entire executive branch) as the “defendant.” It would be up to the executive branch whether it wanted to attend or mount a defense. One can imagine that such a process could be more powerful as a display of soft power than a simple vote on a resolution.

We will see if some enterprising member of Congress picks up on this.

The Senate’s Options in the Flynn Matter

Just got back from a trip abroad. Did I miss anything? I thought my law school classmate Jim Comey could fill me in on the latest, but for some reason my emails to him keep bouncing back . . .

I know, I’m hilarious. Ok, let’s take a look at the controversy du jour, namely former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s decision to invoke the Fifth Amendment in response to a document subpoena from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI). This has led to a flurry of speculation as to what SSCI or the Senate might do next.

For regular readers of Point of Order, the issues here should be pretty familiar. There is no Fifth Amendment right to refuse to produce documents based on their potentially incriminating content, but under certain circumstances a subpoena recipient can refuse to comply on the ground that the act of producing the documents would itself be testimonial in nature. This “act of production” doctrine applies when the subpoena implicitly compels the recipient to communicate that the responsive documents exist, are authentic and are in the recipient’s possession or control.

The committee’s subpoena requires General Flynn to produce, among other things, “all communications records, including electronic communications records such as e-mail or text messages, written correspondence, and phone records, of communications that took place between June 16, 2015, and 12pm on January 20 2017, to which you and any Russian official or representative of Russian business interests was a party.” Flynn’s lawyers contend that the broad sweep of this request shows that the committee lacks prior knowledge of “whether responsive exist, who may possess them, or where they are located.” Thus, by producing documents Flynn would be testifying regarding the existence and authenticity of these records. Moreover, Flynn’s production of responsive documents would require him to testify implicitly regarding his knowledge of who is a “Russian official or representative of Russian business interests.”

Without having studied the matter in any detail, it strikes me that Flynn seems to have at least a plausible act of production objection here. This does not necessarily mean, however, that he would ultimately prevail in litigation. The act of production doctrine is technical and fact specific, and its contours have yet to be clearly spelled out in the case law. Furthermore, to the extent that Flynn has responsive documents that belong to a collective entity and are not simply his own individual documents, the privilege would be inapplicable. Thus, SSCI might reasonably conclude that Flynn’s objection should be rejected on the merits, in whole or in part, or at least that its validity should be tested in court.

What, then, would the committee’s options be? One possibility would be for the committee and the Senate to hold Flynn in criminal contempt, and refer the contempt citation to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia for presentation to the grand jury pursuant to 2 U.S.C. § 194. This law on its face requires the U.S. Attorney to present the contempt matter to a grand jury, but the executive branch has long taken the position that it may disregard this mandatory language, at least in cases where Congress seeks to obtain information which the president has determined to be protected by executive privilege. An unfortunate precedent set in the last administration extends this position to cases where the U.S. Attorney simply believes Congress’s legal position is wrong, even if no question of executive privilege is presented. As I explained in that case (involving the contempt charge against Lois Lerner): “Essentially the U.S. Attorney’s office is reserving the right to make its own independent judgment about the legitimacy of a congressional contempt citation, even if that means resolving a close legal question in a way that protects a witness in an investigation that could embarrass the administration he serves.” Based on that precedent, the executive could refuse to present the Flynn contempt to a grand jury.

The matter is further complicated by the appointment of a special counsel (it turns out that quite a bit happened while I was gone) to investigate the Russia matter. One would think that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, would exercise jurisdiction over any Flynn contempt referral or, at the least, would have to sign off on how the case was handled. This makes it less likely that the Flynn prosecution would simply be dropped like the Lerner case. On the other hand, it may not make it more likely that SSCI will get the documents it is seeking, particularly in a timely fashion. Mueller’s incentive would be to use the possibility of a Flynn indictment for congressional contempt as leverage to advance the priorities of his own criminal investigation. He may have little interest in helping the committee with its investigation (or may actually prefer that the committee’s investigation be halted so as not to interfere with his own).

SSCI may prefer, therefore, to look to an alternative method of enforcing its subpoena. Under 28 U.S.C. § 1365, a Senate committee can bring a civil enforcement action to enforce a subpoena. Under this mechanism, if a subpoena recipient fails to comply with a subpoena from a Senate committee or subcommittee, the committee reports a contempt resolution to the Senate, which may then adopt a resolution directing the Senate Legal Counsel to bring the enforcement action in federal court. See 2 U.S.C. §§ 288b, 288d.

The Senate rarely uses this civil enforcement method, in part because there is an exemption for subpoenas directed to executive branch officials who assert a governmental privilege or objection. That exemption, however, is inapplicable to Flynn’s case, and thus the Senate is free to use it to obtain a federal court ruling on the validity of his Fifth Amendment objection. One downside to this method of enforcement is that it will take some time (e.g., it almost certainly could not be resolved before 2018). A civil enforcement action the Senate brought last year, however, was resolved relatively quickly, within about 6 months of the action being filed by Senate Legal Counsel. (Here is a good summary, ironically written by Flynn’s counsel, of the court’s decision in that case). There is no way to guarantee that a case against Flynn would proceed that quickly (in fact, it probably wouldn’t), but there is no also reason to believe that a criminal contempt proceeding would move any faster. And civil contempt is generally a better method of resolving good faith legal disputes than is criminal contempt. Thus, all in all, it seems to me that a civil enforcement action would be the better method of enforcement here.

In a saner world, there would be another option that the Senate should seriously consider. Any Senate committee can grant immunity by a two-thirds vote of its members (or the Senate as a whole can grant immunity by a simple majority). Although there is a procedure that must be followed to complete the grant of immunity (see 18 U.S.C. §§ 6002, 6005), ultimately SSCI has the power to overcome Flynn’s Fifth Amendment privilege if a bipartisan supermajority of the committee wishes to do so. Although the committee could grant immunity just for the act of production, under current law the consequences would probably be little different than granting Flynn full testimonial immunity (in either case it would be nearly impossible to prosecute him for crimes related to the subject of the committee’s investigation, though he could still be prosecuted for perjury or contempt were he to fail to fully and truthfully respond to the committee’s inquiries). If one believes that obtaining the full truth regarding the Russia investigation is a matter of the highest national priority, it is worth considering whether getting General Flynn’s documents and testimony is more important than preserving the option of prosecuting him.

As a practical matter, however, the Senate almost certainly will not give this serious consideration. The special counsel, whose mission is focused solely on criminal enforcement, would vigorously object to the Senate granting immunity to Flynn. Senators would not want to be seen as responsible for letting Flynn escape criminal punishment, even if this means that SSCI’s investigation is substantially slowed or halted. One of the unfortunate consequences of appointing a special counsel in these circumstances (not the only one, to be sure) is that the public’s interest in a full and expeditious investigation of the Russia matter will take a back seat to the needs and inclinations of the special counsel and the criminal justice system.

So with regard to General Flynn’s refusal to comply with SSCI’s document subpoena, it is likely to be a civil enforcement action or nothing.

Pagliano’s Contumacious Failure to Appear

Last night the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (COGR) voted to approve a contempt resolution for Bryan Pagliano, who failed to appear before the committee in response to a subpoena to testify. Pagliano, you may recall, is the IT specialist who was in charge of setting up Secretary of State Clinton’s private email server. Pagliano previously asserted his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination in both congressional and Justice Department/FBI investigations. He was given use immunity by DOJ/FBI to provide information regarding their investigation into whether the use of the email server by Clinton or others violated laws against the disclosure or mishandling of classified information.

Although the criminal investigation into Clinton’s handling of classified information terminated with FBI Director Comey’s public statement a couple of months ago, COGR says it is continuing to investigate this issue as well as other matters that the FBI investigation did not address. Specifically, the contempt report indicates that COGR’s ongoing investigation includes:

(1) seeking information about former Secretary Hillary Clinton’s use of a private, non-secure email server during her time at the Department of State, as well as the transmittal of classified national security information on that server; (2) examining the circumstances that resulted in the failure to preserve federal records arising during Secretary Clinton’s tenure, as required by the Federal Records Act, and to produce such records pursuant to Congressional requests or request made pursuant to the Freedom of Information and; (3) determining what, if any, changes to the Federal Records Act of 1950, Freedom of Information Act of 1966, Ethics in Government Act of 1978, or any other federal law(s) may be necessary to prevent these or similar circumstances from recurring.

No one, I think, would seriously dispute that these are proper matters for the committee to investigate, nor that Pagliano is a witness with information relevant to them.

Instead, the question is whether Pagliano, having informed COGR through his attorney that he will continue to assert his Fifth Amendment privilege with respect to any questions that the committee asks him about these issues, was required to appear at a hearing to assert the privilege in person. Citing legal ethics opinions, Pagliano’s attorneys at Akin Gump contend that Pagliano is not required to appear at an open hearing, although they said that he was willing to appear at a closed session. Backed by committee Democrats, they argue that requiring Pagliano to appear “in front of video cameras six weeks before the presidential election, betrays a naked political agenda and furthers no valid legislative aim.”

This is not a new issue. Congressional committees have been faced with such objections for decades, at least since a 1977 DC Bar opinion that an attorney serving as counsel to a congressional committee was prohibited by the disciplinary rules from requiring a witness to appear at televised hearings when the committee had been notified in advance that the witness would refuse to answer questions based on the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Continue reading “Pagliano’s Contumacious Failure to Appear”

An Urgent Need to Combat Executive Privilege after COGR v. Lynch

In the Federalist Society Review, Chris Armstrong, the Deputy Chief Oversight Counsel for Chairman Hatch at the Senate Finance Committee, has written an article entitled “A Costly Victory for Congress: Executive Privilege after Committee on Oversight and Government Reform v. Lynch.” (Actually, he wrote this in June, but I am a little behind on everything, as you may have noticed).

Although the House committee mostly “won” this case at the district court level because Judge Amy Berman Jackson ordered DOJ to turn over many of the Fast and Furious related documents the committee was seeking, Armstrong points out the the court’s reasoning actually “lay[s] out a vision of an expansive deliberative process privilege that—if it stands—may diminish Congress’s powers to investigate the Executive Branch.” Specifically, by allowing the assertion of a constitutional privilege against Congress for any records that would reveal aspects of the executive branch’s deliberations with respect to policies or decisions it makes, the court opened the door to a privilege that “can be invoked against producing nearly any record the President chooses.”

Armstrong is right to be concerned about the implications of the district court’s ruling. As I pointed out earlier this year, Congress can expect that agencies will seize upon Judge Jackson’s opinion to resist congressional oversight. Armstrong suggests this is already happening, noting a recent “marked increase” in deliberative process claims “across agencies and to a wide range of congressional committees conducting active investigations.” He further expresses the concern that “we may be entering an era in which fewer disputes are resolved through good faith negotiation and the federal judiciary becomes the primary venue for settling these disputes,” a result that “may not bode well for Congress.”

This would indeed be an unfortunate development. However, as I wrote in my post on this topic, Congress can avoid this result by taking action to limit the types of subpoena enforcement cases that come before the judiciary. Essentially, such cases should be limited to situations where the president has not invoked executive privilege, thereby leaving the courts without any constitutional dispute to resolve (there still could be non-constitutional issues such as the committee’s jurisdiction and the relevance of the information sought).

So how should congressional committees go about enforcing their subpoenas when the president invokes executive privilege? A number of ideas have been floated, including using the appropriations process to restrict funding for agencies that refuse to comply with congressional subpoenas. The Select Committee on Benghazi, for example, recommends that “House and Senate rules should be amended to provide for mandatory reductions in appropriations to the salaries of federal officials held in contempt of Congress.” (see section IV, p. 66 of the Select Committee report). Other ideas include reinvigorating inherent contempt (in which the legislative body itself punishes the recalcitrant official), amending the criminal contempt statute to provide for appointment of a special counsel to prosecute contempt by executive officials (another recommendation of the Select Committee), and impeachment.

Whatever mechanism(s) Congress (and/or the House and Senate individually) settle on, the time to act is now. With the two leading presidential contenders not exactly known for their commitment to transparency, there can be no doubt that the next administration will see a continuation, if not an escalation, of these problems.

Neither is there any reason to wait on the outcome of the appellate process in COGR v. Lynch. The briefing schedule is rather leisurely: appellant’s brief is due October 6, appellee’s brief is due December 20, and any reply brief is not due until January 17, 2017. By the time briefing is complete, it seems likely that the case may be overtaken by events, and I would guess that the D.C. Circuit will never reach the merits of the case. In any event, Congress cannot afford to leave its institutional prerogatives in the hands of the courts.

 

Senate Enforcement Action against Backpage CEO

I am a little late on this, but last month the Senate authorized a rare civil action to enforce a subpoena, utilizing a statutory mechanism for enforcement of Senate (but not House) subpoenas. See 28 U.S.C. § 1365. Under this mechanism, if a subpoena recipient fails to comply with a subpoena from a Senate committee or subcommittee, the committee reports a contempt resolution to the Senate, which may then adopt a resolution directing the Senate Legal Counsel to bring an enforcement action in federal court. See 2 U.S.C. §§ 288b, 288d.

The subpoena in question was issued by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (affectionately known as “PSI”) to the CEO of a company called Backpage.com, which runs an online classified advertising website. PSI opened an investigation of internet sex trafficking in April 2015, and, according to its opening brief in the enforcement case, its “research and investigation have shown that Backpage is a dominant presence in the online market for commercial sex and that numerous instances of child sex trafficking have occurred through its website.” The PSI subpoena sought documents related to Backpage’s practices in this regard, particularly with respect to screening of advertisements and other measures designed to prevent sex traffickers from using its website.

According to PSI, Backpage’s CEO refused to produce or even to search for documents responsive to the subpoena, claiming that “the subpoena is outside the Subcommittee’s jurisdiction, intrudes on his First Amendment rights, and seeks materials not pertinent to the Subcommittee’s investigation.” We will see what Backpage (represented by former House Counsel Steve Ross) has to say in response, but those do not sound like winning objections to me.

The Senate unanimously adopted a resolution authorizing enforcement on March 17, and on March 29 Senate Legal Counsel filed the action on PSI’s behalf in DC federal court. When I say this action is “rare,” the last time Senate Legal Counsel brought such a case was in 1993, when the Ethics Committee sought to force Senator Packwood to produce his diary.