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.

Why Wouldn’t Congress Give Pagliano Immunity?

Bryan Pagliano, a former State Department staffer who helped to set up Hillary Clinton’s private e-mail server, has informed several congressional committees, including the House Select Committee on Benghazi and the Senate Judiciary Committee, that he will invoke the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination if forced to appear before those committees to answer questions about that subject. Pagliano’s attorney cited “the ongoing FBI inquiry into the security of Clinton’s e-mail system” as the basis for his fear of possible incrimination.

In connection with the Lois Lerner matter, we have discussed the various legal issues related to a former government official’s invocation of the Fifth Amendment before Congress. One of the possible responses to such invocation is for the congressional committee to grant the witness immunity, thereby preventing his congressional testimony from being used against him in a future prosecution. Once such immunity is granted, the witness no longer has the legal right to refuse to answer questions before the committee based on the Fifth Amendment.

In theory, the immunity granted extends only to the actual use of the congressional testimony, but in practice it becomes nearly impossible to prosecute the congressional witness for any crime related to the subject of that testimony. Thus, if the committee believes that the witness may truly face the possibility of prosecution, it may be reluctant to grant immunity. This is one of the primary reasons that congressional grants of immunity are fairly rare (the last one given was to Monica Goodling in 2007 by the House Judiciary Committee).

With respect to Pagliano, however, this would hardly seem to be a serious issue. Unlike Lerner, he is not a senior or central figure in the investigation. The chances of his facing any kind of criminal jeopardy for setting up a private e-mail server (which by definition had to have occurred before any classified e-mails were sent through that server) would seem extremely remote.

In any event, the process of granting immunity allows the executive branch, in the person of the Attorney General, to express any concerns about the grant of immunity that it may have. The congressional committee must notify the Attorney General of its intent to seek the immunity order and thus the Attorney General has the opportunity to inform the committee of any objections to the grant of immunity. However, while the Attorney General has the power to delay the grant of immunity by up to 20 days, see 18 U.S.C. § 6005 (c), she has no power to veto or ultimately stop it from being granted. See Application of U.S. Senate Sel. Comm. on Pres. Campaign Activities, 361 F.Supp. 1270, 1276 (D.D.C. 1973).

Applying for immunity requires a vote of either two-thirds of the congressional committee or a majority of the full House or Senate. Thus, while the Attorney General cannot stop the grant of immunity, the committee minority can at least force the matter to full body if it objects to the grant. In the circumstances of this case, it seems to me it would be difficult to make a credible argument as to why Pagliano shouldn’t receive immunity. But the process gives everyone an ample opportunity to express their views.

Taking the Fifth Before Congress

In a letter to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform yesterday, Lois Lerner’s attorney (veteran DC lawyer William Taylor) informed the committee of her intention to invoke her Fifth Amendment rights at today’s committee hearing. Taylor said that she should not be required to appear at the hearing because to do so would serve “no purpose other than to embarrass or burden her.” COGR required Lerner to appear, but dismissed her after she refused to answer questions, though not before she made an exculpatory  statement in which she denied any wrongdoing.

This raises a number of legal questions, which we will proceed to consider.

1. Why can a witness invoke the Fifth Amendment before Congress when the privilege against self-incrimination applies only to criminal cases? With surprisingly little controversy (but see here for an academic view to the contrary), it has long been accepted by Congress and the courts that a congressional witness may invoke the Fifth. The theory is that if a witness were forced to testify in a congressional hearing, that testimony could be used against her in a subsequent criminal case. Note that this theory only holds if in fact the testimony could be used in court.

2. When can the witness invoke the Fifth? The witness must have a reasonable belief that her testimony might be used against her in a criminal prosecution. This does not mean that the witness must believe that she has actually committed a crime or that her truthful testimony would lead to her conviction. It just means that there is some realistic possibility that the witness may be criminally prosecuted for a matter to which her testimony might be relevant. This is a fairly low bar.

3. Can government officials invoke the Fifth before Congress and keep their jobs? Although I personally find it difficult to understand how a government official (particularly a senior official like Lerner) can refuse to testify before Congress, which is constitutionally responsible for overseeing the activities of her agency, it is fairly clear that she cannot be fired for doing so. My view is that at the least the President should be able to fire cabinet officials and others who serve at his pleasure for invoking the Fifth, but even this view was controversial when the issue arose during my tenure on the Hill. In any event, Lerner is a career employee, and my understanding is that she cannot be subjected to adverse employment consequences (unlike a private employee) for invoking her self-incrimination privilege.

4. Does Lerner have a colorable basis for invoking the Fifth? Yes. As mentioned earlier, there is a fairly low bar. The Justice Department has commenced a criminal investigation of the matter, and Lerner has reason to believe that she could be the target of investigation and ultimately of prosecution. In particular, it is conceivable that she could be prosecuted for making false or misleading statements to Congress. For example, this letter that she received from Chairman Darrell Issa and Representative Jim Jordan on May 14, 2013 points to various discrepancies between the facts as Lerner knew them and various statements that she made to Congress.

5. Can Congress require a witness to appear at a public hearing to invoke her Fifth Amendment rights? The short answer to this is yes. However, as we have discussed before (see here and here), the D.C. Bar has opined that a committee staff lawyer may violate the legal ethics rules if he or she participates in calling a witness to appear at a public hearing when the witness has asserted an intent to invoke the Fifth. By claiming that there was no legitimate purpose in requiring his client to appear, Taylor probably intended to suggest that committee lawyers participating in the hearing could run afoul of this legal ethics opinion. Perhaps this is why the committee was willing to excuse Lerner so quickly.

6. Does a witness waive her Fifth Amendment privilege when she voluntarily makes an exculpatory statement at a congressional hearing? You would think so, and apparently Representative Trey Gowdy made just that argument after Lerner made her statement. Unfortunately, witnesses at congressional hearings have been getting away with this for years. For example, when Bernie Ebbers, prior to taking the Fifth at a July 8, 2002 hearing before the House Committee on Financial Services, made an opening statement in which he denied all wrongdoing, a number of members argued that this statement waived the self-incrimination privilege. His lawyer (Reid Weingarten), however, argued that a “brief, non-incriminatory statement” did not waive the privilege. This was (and, as far as I know, still is) a debatable position, but the House has not seen fit to challenge it up to this point.

7. Can Congress require Lerner to testify notwithstanding her invocation of privilege? Yes. Recall that the privilege only prevents testimony that can be used in a criminal trial. By statute (see 18 U.S.C. 6002, 6005), a congressional committee may grant a witness immunity so that her statements may not be used against her; once such immunity is granted, the witness can be compelled before the committee. Initiating the process requires a two-thirds vote of the committee. Although in theory the witness receives only “use immunity” (meaning that she can still be prosecuted so long as her compelled statements are not used), the case law (in the D.C. Circuit at least) makes prosecution nearly impossible.

8. Would Lerner be a good candidate for immunity? Maybe. In part that depends on how likely one thinks it is that she would be prosecuted if immunity is not granted. Based on what is known today, by far the most likely criminal charge against her would relate to misleading Congress. But it would be difficult to prosecute her unless one can point to an unambiguous false statement and prove that she knew it was false when she made it. Even if a case could theoretically be made, one has to consider how likely it would be that the Department of Justice would prosecute her for misleading Congress, particularly on a theory that could ensnare many other senior administration officials.

Ethical Dilemma

Friday’s letter from the House Ethics Committee indicates that Billy Martin was asked “to review allegations that this Committee violated due process rights or rules attaching to Representative Waters.” Martin was also asked “to address whether recusal of any Members of the Committee should be considered and when would be the most appropriate time for his recommendations regarding recusal.” Martin apparently advised initially that recusal decisions should wait until he completed his due process review.

For reasons I suggested in August, I think this was the wrong approach. Whatever “due process violations” may have occurred, they should not prevent the Committee from moving forward with the Waters case so long as appropriate steps are taken to remove the taint of any past violations. Most obviously:

As a practical matter, it seems almost inevitable that Martin will recommend that some members of the Committee be recused from future involvement in the Waters case. Whether or not Martin agrees with or can substantiate Chisam’s allegations, recusal would help to ensure public confidence in the process and remove any potential taint from the prior proceedings. Rather than further delaying the Waters proceeding while he tries to untangle the legal and factual aspects of the alleged ex parte communications, it would make more sense for Martin to figure out who ought to be recused in order for the matter to move forward.

Because Martin’s due process review has been stymied by a “necessary witness” taking the Fifth, he has decided that now would be a good time to make recusal decisions after all. Accordingly, six current Committee members (all five Republicans plus Ranking Member Sanchez) have decided to recuse themselves from the Waters matter, and substitutes have been appointed from outside of the Committee. These six substitutes, plus the four other Democrats who are currently on the Committee (but did not serve on the Committee in the last Congress), will form a kind of substitute committee for purposes of the Waters case.

Does this mean that the Committee is going to take my advice and move forward with the Waters matter? Maybe . . . but I wouldn’t count on it. If they try to advance the Waters case without resolving the due process issues, Stan Brand (Waters’s counsel) will raise holy hell. And if the Committee tries to argue now that the due process issues do not need to be resolved, it will be a little hard to explain why more than six months and hundreds of thousands of tax dollars were spent trying to resolve them.

The other option is for the Committee to try to force the “necessary witness” to testify. It could do this by obtaining a grant of immunity under 18 U.S.C. § 6005. But there is a problem with this too. A grant of immunity requires a two-thirds vote of the full Committee. Who would be counted for purposes of the vote? Do the recused members count?

Even worse, there would seem to be a serious question as to the legality of the substitute appointments. The appointments were made under House Rule XI, clause 3(b)(5), and Committee Rule 9(e), which state that a member of the Ethics Committee may disqualify himself or herself “upon the submission in writing and under oath of an affidavit of disqualification stating that the member cannot render an impartial and unbiased decision in the case in which the member seeks to be disqualified.” One assumes that no such affidavits were submitted here because the Committee’s letter states that the recused members “believe that they each can render an impartial and unbiased decision in any proceeding related to this matter.”

Maybe there is another way around the problem, but I think the substitute committee will eventually need either (1) agreement from Waters and/or the necessary witness not to object to the composition of the committee or (2) a resolution of the House approving the appointment of the substitute committee. Otherwise any way forward is going to face even more procedural obstacles.

So what happens now? I am not sure, but the path of least resistance may be for the substitute committee to use other tools to pressure the necessary witness to cooperate. If the witness is whom I think, there are such tools available. But its going to be difficult road however they proceed.

Its another fine mess you’ve gotten us into, Stanley.