Congressional Committees Should Consider Addressing Fifth Amendment Waiver in their Rules

As we move toward the opening of the 116thCongress, there are many ideas for reforming congressional rules and practice. One small but not insignificant change that might be considered relates to an issue that arises from time to time—when does a witness before Congress waive her Fifth Amendment privilege by making a voluntary exculpatory opening statement? We discussed this issue about five years ago in connection with Lois Lerner’s appearance before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (see more here and here).

2015 law review article by Jason Kornmehl concludes that while the question is a close one, Lerner likely waived her Fifth Amendment rights “because her opening statement contained not only a general denial of wrongdoing, but also incriminating factual assertions as well as reference to the Inspector General’s ambiguous findings in the audit report on the IRS.” Kornmehl also makes two recommendations for future congressional practice: (1) congressional committees should not require witnesses to appear when it is absolutely certain they will invoke their privilege against self-incrimination and (2) witnesses who might invoke the privilege (e.g., if they are the subject of a parallel criminal investigation) should be advised that an opening statement may be deemed a waiver of the privilege, at least if it goes beyond a general assertion of innocence.

My own view is slightly different. When a witness advises a committee she intends to invoke the Fifth, there are valid reasons why it might nonetheless require her to appear, including the possibilities that she will change her mind or the committee will decide to offer her immunity. While no doubt there are instances when this power is abused, it is not necessarily improper for a committee to decide that a particular witness, particularly an executive branch official, should be required to invoke the privilege publicly.

I do, however, agree that committees should adopt rules and practices that clearly advise witnesses that making an opening statement may be deemed a waiver of the privilege. A witness should be able to state that she is acting on advice of counsel and that no adverse inferences should be drawn from her decision to follow that advice. Beyond that, witnesses and counsel should be advised that the committee will deem an opening statement to constitute a waiver of the privilege.

 

 

Kavanaugh’s Missing Records

Yeah, I know. The transparency and separation of powers issues that everyone thought were so important with respect to the Kavanaugh nomination a week or so ago are now yesterday’s news. For that very reason, I am putting a longer piece on the Presidential Records Act and its application to the Kavanaugh hearing on the back burner. But I want to make a relatively brief point on the subject at this time.

With all the charges and countercharges relating to what documents were and were not produced from Kavanaugh’s prior government employment, it is easy to become confused as to what is actually at issue. In my view, the most important question has to do with the documents from Kavanaugh’s service at the White House counsel’s office that were withheld from the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Under the PRA, all of Kavanaugh’s documents from his service in the GW Bush White House are in the custody of the Archivist of the United States (and his agency the National Archives and Records Administration or NARA). At the outset, the committee majority and minority disagreed whether to request that NARA produce Kavanaugh’s documents from both his service as an attorney in the White House counsel’s office and later as President Bush’s staff secretary. Chairman Grassley decided that the former employment was far more relevant to Kavanaugh’s nomination and that requesting the latter would unreasonably delay the process. Accordingly, the committee requested that NARA produce only the White House counsel documents. While people may disagree with Grassley on this, the decision was one for him to make (and, for what it’s worth, seems reasonable to me).

The problem arises from the fact that the committee did not receive all of Kavanaugh’s White House counsel documents. Instead, some 27,110 documents (amounting to 101,921 pages) were withheld entirely from the committee on grounds of constitutional privilege. Other documents were withheld for other reasons (e.g., lack of responsiveness) and some documents were produced to the committee on a confidential basis, but it is the roughly 100,000 pages of material withheld as constitutionally privileged that present by far the most important issue, both in terms of compliance with constitutional and legal requirements and from the perspective of obtaining the information most relevant to Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

For purposes of discussion, we will assume that all of the documents in question were plausibly within the scope of constitutional privilege (or, as it is more commonly called, executive privilege). It should be understood that the word “plausibly” is doing a lot of work here. The scope of executive privilege is a highly contested matter, and executive branch lawyers (not surprisingly) tend to take a broader view than others. Moreover, as anyone who has had to review documents for privilege can attest, applying even an agreed-upon standard to particular documents is often more of an art than a science. So if one starts with a broad view of executive privilege and errs on the side of withholding anything that might arguably fall within that broad scope, one can “plausibly” withhold quite a bit of material. Indeed, one might be able to withhold nearly everything from Kavanaugh’s records that would be of actual relevance to assessing his performance as a White House lawyer.

So what exactly was withheld from the committee? According to a letter from a private law firm retained by former President Bush, the “most significant portion of these documents reflect deliberations and candid advice concerning the selection and nomination of judicial candidates, the confidentiality of which is critical to any President’s ability to carry out this core constitutional executive function.” One can certainly understand why the executive branch might be reluctant to share these files with Congress. Presumably they would contain candid discussion, including negative information and opinions, regarding actual and potential judicial nominees. To give one hypothetical but realistic example, there could be a file on a candidate who was not nominated because of alleged misconduct that may or may not have occurred in the distant past. The potential leak of such information might undercut the ability of future presidents to find qualified judicial candidates and to obtain information and candid advice regarding the exercise of the nomination power.

Of course, it is possible that the nomination files would have information that would be in some way relevant to Kavanaugh’s confirmation. They might show something about his judgment, about what qualities he thinks are important in a judge, or about his inclinations with regard to judicial philosophy. Nonetheless, I can see a strong argument that the relevance of this information is outweighed by the potential harm to the president’s nominating power and collateral damage to the judicial branch. (Needless to say, nothing in the events of the past week has inspired confidence in the ability of Congress to avoid such consequences). Thus, the withholding of judicial nomination files seems relatively defensible.

Less so is the withholding of the remaining documents at issue, which include “advice submitted directly to President Bush; substantive communications between White House staff about communications with President Bush; and substantive, deliberative discussions relating to or about executive orders or legislation considered by the Executive Office of the President.” These categories seem broad enough to encompass all of Kavanaugh’s work that would be of the most interest, including the subjects I discussed in my last post.

Let’s take one of those subjects as an example. As I mentioned previously, Kavanaugh was intimately involved in a controversial Bush executive order regarding the procedures for complying with the requirements of the PRA. (Yes, it is ironic, as Amy Howe notes, that we are discussing the use of the PRA to obtain access to documents involving legal work on the interpretation of the PRA). The documents produced to the committee confirm Kavanaugh’s deep involvement in the subject; Howe notes “another White House lawyer jokingly referring to him as ‘Mr. Presidential Records.’” Thus, there are hundreds if not thousands of pages of printouts of public or external materials related to the PRA (legal opinions, law review articles, court pleadings, congressional testimony and correspondence, etc.).

What is missing, as far as I can tell, is any evidence of Kavanaugh’s legal analysis, his participation in drafting and promulgating the executive order, or his role in deciding how to respond to criticism of the executive order by Congress and others. To illustrate the point, take a look at a printout of an August 15, 2001 email from Kavanaugh to White House counsel Alberto Gonzales. The subject is “New draft Presidential Records EO.” The brief email states: “The plan is to get this into the OMB process by the end of the week. Note new Section 5, which both is accurate and should deflect criticism.” And a handwritten note on the printout, apparently from Gonzales, instructs Kavanaugh to “prepare a cover memo . . . explaining what this is and the need—as well as possible negative repercussions.”

Although this non-substantive email was produced to the committee, the attached draft executive order was not, nor was the memo that Kavanaugh presumably prepared in response to Gonzales’s instruction.  Among other things, there is no way to tell how Kavanaugh initially drafted the executive order (if he did), what legal analysis or policy thinking underlay that draft or subsequent revisions, what the problem was with the troublesome Section 5 or how it was fixed, or what Kavanaugh’s memo identified as the need for the new executive order or the “possible negative repercussions.” All of the documents that would provide insight into Kavanaugh’s actual work on this matter appear to have been withheld.

Again, we can concede that internal deliberations related to the executive order were plausibly within the scope of executive privilege at the time they occurred (2001-03). It should be noted, however, that at least 15 years have elapsed since these deliberations took place, and the Supreme Court has recognized that executive privilege is “subject to erosion over time after an administration leaves office.” Nixon v. Administrator of General Services, 433 U.S. 425, 451 (1977). In contrast to the judicial nomination files, it is difficult to identify any particularized harm that might occur from making these materials public, still less from making them available to the committee on a confidential basis.

Even more important than the question of whether these documents could be properly withheld on grounds of executive privilege is whether the decision was made in a legally authorized manner. Because there is a wide range of views on when executive privilege can or should be asserted, it is essential that the decision to assert the privilege be made in a proper and accountable manner. As recognized by the PRA, the primary interest in asserting executive privilege in presidential records, particularly with respect to matters that do not involve classified information or state secrets, belongs to the former president from whose administration they originate. See Hearings Regarding Executive Order 13233 and the Presidential Records Act Before the House Subcomm. on Gov’t Efficiency, Financial Mgt. & Intergovernmental Relations of the Comm. on Government Reform 24 (Nov. 6, 2001) (testimony of Acting Asst. Atty. Gen. Edward Whelan) (“In short, in enacting the PRA, Congress envisioned a balancing act—an orderly process for making presidential records ‘available to the public as rapidly and completely as possible,’ while preserving opportunities former Presidents, at least, to assert constitutionally based privileges as grounds for withholding documents from mandatory disclosure.”) (citations omitted). Even where the privilege constitutionally may be asserted, moreover, there is nothing in the Constitution requiring that it must be asserted. Id. at 29.

Here President Bush did not assert executive privilege. Instead, Bush’s lawyers have informed the committee that they have withheld documents on grounds of executive privilege because “the White House, after consultation with the Department of Justice, has directed that we not provide these documents.” NARA, while still at an early stage in terms of reviewing Kavanaugh’s documents, has informed the committee that certain records are being withheld based on the determination by “representatives of the former and incumbent Presidents” that the documents concern “internal assessments about the qualifications of a judicial candidate, the confidentiality of which is critical to the process of advising the President regarding potential nominations.” This is clearly not a claim that President Bush has asserted executive privilege.

To be sure, Executive Order 13489, the executive order currently governing presidential records (which replaced the Bush executive order previously discussed), provides for the possibility that the incumbent president may assert executive privilege with respect to the records of a former president even where the latter has declined to do so. However, section 3(c) of E.O. 13489 provides specific procedures under which the issue must be presented to the incumbent president by the White House counsel and Attorney General, and section 3(d) requires that the president’s decision to assert executive privilege be specifically documented by the White House counsel. No one has suggested that the issue has been presented to President Trump or that he has made any such decision, nor has the required documentation been generated. Thus, it seems clear that no proper assertion of executive privilege has been made pursuant to the PRA or E.O. 13489. See also 44 U.S.C. §2208(b)(1) (“For purposes of this section, the decision to assert any claim of constitutionally based privilege against disclosure of a Presidential record (or reasonably segregable part of a record) must be made personally by a former President or the incumbent President, as applicable.”).

In short, the decision to withhold more than 100,000 pages of White House counsel records from the Senate Judiciary Committee on grounds of executive privilege is substantively questionable with regard to those documents other than judicial nomination files, and the entire withholding appears to be procedurally improper under the PRA and E.O. 13489. Apart from legal infirmities, moreover, the broad withholding of these documents appears to have defeated the purpose of the committee’s request by depriving it of any information that would provide a significant insight with regard to how Kavanaugh performed his duties as a White House lawyer.

 

Wright on Executive Privilege with Some Additional Thoughts Hazarded by Stern

Steve Bannon, the former chief strategist in the Trump White House, has refused to answer questions from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) regarding his time in the White House and on the presidential transition team. Bannon claims these subjects may implicate executive privilege and is deferring to the White House counsel’s office as to whether the privilege will be invoked.

I was going to post some comments on this issue, but almost everything I was going to say is admirably covered by Professor Andy Wright here. Wright’s key points are (1) Bannon’s status as a former government official is irrelevant to the legal merits of the privilege claim, though it could impact how the matter is resolved procedurally (more on that in a minute); (2) the privilege belongs to the president, not to the subordinate official; (3) it is thus appropriate to provide the president, with the advice of White House counsel and other executive branch lawyers, an opportunity to decide whether to invoke the privilege formally; (4) if negotiations do not resolve the issue, HPSCI must move forward with a formal contempt process; (5) while it may ultimately be decided that executive privilege does not attach to presidential transitions, the question at this point is an open one; and (6) even if the privilege does apply, HPSCI will still have strong arguments in favor of requiring Bannon to answer some or all of its questions.

One point of qualification. While I agree with Wright that issues of executive privilege have to be decided on a question-by-question basis, the burden is not on Bannon to make sure that specific questions get asked. In other words, if Bannon issued a “blanket refusal [to answer] about all swaths of time during his transition and White House roles,” as Wright indicates, it is still incumbent on HPSCI to make a record of the specific questions it wants answered. Failure to do so could undermine its legal position or delay resolution of the merits should the dispute reach the courts.

This brings us to the procedure HPSCI should employ to resolve this matter. As Wright notes, there are three avenues available (criminal contempt, civil litigation and inherent contempt). Each has its drawbacks and none is guaranteed to work (or work in a timely fashion) even if one assumes HPSCI would win the executive privilege issue on the merits.

As we discussed in connection with the Comey matter, however, the procedure followed with regard to a former official might differ from the norm. If Bannon takes the position that he will abide by HPSCI’s rulings on executive privilege unless otherwise directed by a federal court, the burden would be on the executive branch to bring a civil action and obtain a speedy order (presumably a TRO) directing Bannon not to testify.

On the other hand, Bannon might say that he will abide by the president’s instructions even if it means being held in contempt by HPSCI and the House. If so, the House could consider employing the rarest form of testimonial compulsion, inherent contempt. In this procedure, Bannon would be arrested by the Sergeant at Arms and brought before the bar of the House. If he continues to refuse to testify, the House could remand him into the custody of the Sergeant at Arms until he changes his mind (or convinces a court to release him on a habeas petition). This is a drastic remedy, which has not been employed by the House in about a century. But if the House is serious about reasserting its institutional prerogatives, there could hardly be a more inviting target than Mr. Bannon.

Anyway, there is something about incarcerating Bannon in the basement of the Capitol that seems like where 2018 is going, don’t you think?

P.S. RIP Geoffrey Hazard.

 

 

Comey and Executive Privilege (with Update)

[See Update below]

Former FBI Director Jim Comey is scheduled to testify before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) next week. He is expected to be asked questions about certain subjects, including his personal conversations with the president, that might be the subject of executive privilege claims. However, because Comey is testifying voluntarily and presumably would like to share this information with the committee, the question arises whether there is any effective method for the administration to stop him from answering questions it believes to be invasive of executive privilege.

In a Twitter thread, Eric Columbus, a former lawyer in the Obama administration, argues that the answer is no. He contends that the privilege only protects a witness from being compelled to provide information. It does not apply, he suggests, to the voluntary testimony of a former government official, just as it does not prevent former officials from writing books or giving interviews in which they discuss conversations with the president or other communications that might fall within the scope of executive privilege. As Columbus puts it, “I know of no precedent for blocking a FORMER official who WANTS to testify.” (all caps in original; its Twitter after all).

To the extent Columbus is suggesting that the applicability of executive privilege turns on whether the former official wants to testify, this seems wrong. The privilege belongs to the president, not to the subordinate official, and it is hard to see why the availability of the privilege should turn on the subordinate’s preferences.

Columbus makes an interesting point about the fact that former officials often write books or make other public disclosures about matters that could be covered by executive privilege. It could be that executive privilege, having developed as an evidentiary doctrine in formal proceedings, simply does not apply to such situations or, alternatively, that it does apply but there is no method of enforcing it. Broad gag orders against former executive branch officials (e.g, requiring them to get preclearance before speaking about their time in office, or threatening sanctions if they make public disclosures that in the judgment of the president or his lawyers violate executive privilege) would raise some tricky First Amendment issues, which we have discussed in the context of analogous prohibitions on congressional staffers. But these issues do not have much bearing on Comey’s testimony in a formal congressional proceeding.

The real problem here is procedural. Assuming for the sake of argument that the president has a valid or at least plausible executive privilege objection, how can that objection be raised in this situation?

The most straightforward answer would be for the executive branch to communicate to Comey (presumably through a lawyer who would attend the hearing) which questions it believes intrude upon executive privilege. Comey would then inform the committee of this objection, and it would then be up to the chairman to decide how to proceed. Comey might refuse to play this role, but I doubt he would do so. It is in his interest to remain above the fray to the extent possible, and to let the real parties in interest (the committee and the executive branch) battle it out.

Even if Comey declines to cooperate, the committee would probably allow the executive branch to raise its objections directly (presumably by having its lawyer stand up and object on a question by question basis). This would be a highly unusual procedure, and it might be contended that the committee’s rules do not permit it. SSCI Rule 8.6 provides that “[a]ny objection raised by a witness or counsel shall be ruled upon by the Chairman or other presiding member, and such ruling shall be the ruling of the Committee unless a majority of the Committee present overrules the ruling of the chair.” The “counsel” referred to here is counsel for the witness, and in this case the government counsel would not be appearing in that capacity. I suspect, though, that SSCI would make an allowance for this unusual situation.

Assuming the executive branch has the opportunity to raise the objection, it is up to the chairman to rule on the objection in the first instance. I imagine there could be some dispute as to whether Rule 8.6 requires the chair to rule immediately or permits him to take the matter under advisement, but let’s assume eventually there is a final ruling from the chair/committee. At that point I expect that Comey would comply with the ruling, as he is under no obligation to risk being held in contempt. This procedure would therefore leave the resolution of the issue ultimately in the control of the committee.

The administration’s only alternative would seem to be to bring an action in federal court against Comey (the Speech or Debate Clause prohibits it from suing the committee). The suit would ask for declaratory and injunctive relief prohibiting Comey from testifying on certain subjects or providing certain information to Congress. The executive branch used this method in the 1970s in an attempt to prevent AT&T from complying with a congressional subpoena. See United States v. AT&T, 567 F.2d 121 (D.C. Cir. 1977). Although that case involved national security information, there is no reason in principle why the same method could not be used to resolve a different type of executive privilege issue. Whether the Trump administration wants to take the political heat from bringing such a suit, or whether it is confident that its legal position would ultimately be vindicated in court, are different questions.

UPDATE:

In a follow up exchange on Twitter, Columbus expresses doubt that a court could grant a remedy to the executive branch under the circumstances here. His argument is that the court could not enjoin Comey from discussing the same matters outside of Congress (e.g., it couldn’t stop him from going on the Sunday talk shows to discuss his conversations with the president) so logically it could not enjoin him from talking to Congress either. Essentially he is arguing that because the court cannot grant effective relief, it should dismiss the executive branch’s (hypothetical) lawsuit against Comey for lack of standing.

I agree that a court might accept this argument, but I don’t think it is a slam dunk. To begin with, it assumes that a court would take as a given that a former executive official cannot be enjoined from publicly disclosing confidential (but non-classified) presidential communications contrary to POTUS’s instructions. As far as I know, no such case has been brought, much less decided. While I tend to agree with Columbus that there would be serious problems with such a suit (including First Amendment prior restraint issues), the matter is not so clear that a court would necessarily want to predicate its decision in our hypothetical suit on a prediction about the outcome of this different and more novel case.

Moreover, even if we assume Comey could not be enjoined from disclosing presidential communications outside Congress, it does not follow that such disclosures would be legal or proper. Nor is it guaranteed they would be without consequence. For example, a former official might find his security clearance in jeopardy or face a bar complaint (if, like Comey, he is a lawyer). These potential consequences make it less likely a court can simply assume that Comey (or any former official) would be free to divulge presidential communications in a public setting.

Finally, a court’s view of this issue may very well depend on the position Comey himself takes in our (hypothetical) litigation. As a long time executive branch lawyer, Comey would probably be reluctant to suggest it is generally appropriate for former officials to divulge confidential presidential communications. Such a stance would be at least in tension with the executive branch’s approach to executive privilege, and it might have ramifications for the ability of future presidents to have candid discussions with their FBI directors. I am also not sure Comey would want to open himself up to questioning generally about his discussions with Presidents Trump, Obama or Bush. So I would guess he would be cautious about asserting any general right (much less intent) to make public disclosures about these matters.

I would note that in the course of my exchange with Columbus, a number of tweeters chirped in with comments along the lines of: “If Comey can’t testify before Congress, why wouldn’t he just go on Rachel Maddow or some other cable show and spill the beans there? That’s what I would do!”

The short answer to this is: “Because he’s Comey, not you.” The somewhat longer answer is that I don’t know what Comey might do, but I think he has a number of personal and institutional incentives, alluded to above, not to do that.

In any event, I agree with Columbus that there is a risk that the hypothetical lawsuit against Comey could be dismissed on jurisdictional grounds, but I don’t assess this risk as being as high as he does. If I were advising the president, I would be more concerned with the political cost of bringing such a lawsuit in the first place, as well as the distinct possibility that the executive branch could lose on the merits.

Based on the latest news, though, it sounds like the administration is backing away from asserting executive privilege at all with respect to Comey’s testimony before SSCI.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

(Not So) Desperately Seeking Trump’s Tax Returns

Despite the great deal of chatter (marches even) about the need for President Trump to release his tax returns, there has been relatively little discussion of Congress’s statutory authority to obtain these materials. Two exceptions are these comments by Professors Andy Grewal and George Yin. Grewal and Yin agree that Congress has the authority to request and obtain Trump’s tax returns for a legitimate legislative purpose, and they also agree that the executive branch could disregard a congressional request for these returns on certain grounds (e.g., Congress does not in fact have a legitimate legislative need for the information or, in Grewal’s words, “the request is supported only by personal animus and not a proper legislative purpose”).

Though the matter is not free from doubt, I take a somewhat different view of the law here. I argue below that the Secretary of the Treasury (to whom Congress directs requests for tax return information) and the executive branch in general do not have the legal right to refuse congressional requests for tax return information based on an assessment of the legislative need or motive that underlies such requests. I also suggest that Congress can minimize the likelihood that the executive branch will assert a right to refuse its request by adopting a careful and disciplined approach to making the request in the first place.

Continue reading “(Not So) Desperately Seeking Trump’s Tax Returns”

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.

 

 

Martin Shkreli’s Contempt for Congress

I have never seen anything like the deportment of this witness, who smirked and made various faces while taking the Fifth before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. At least his lawyer did not allow him to make an opening statement. Instead, the lawyer gave an impromptu press conference afterwards, in which he made various exculpatory claims on his client’s behalf and claimed (ludicrously) that his client’s demeanor was not intended to show any disrespect for the committee.

 Update: apparently this conduct shouldn’t have been unexpected.