Tuesday, September 9, 2014


House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform staff have allegedly caught red-handed, a Department of Justice Employee, who mistakenly called the wrong number, attempting to gain access to Oversight Committee documents in advance of their release by the Committee, in order to be able to "spin" possibly damaging information.

In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa writes a scathing rebuke, detailing the alleged incident:

"I write with serious concerns stemming from a telephone call my staff received late on Friday afternoon from the Justice Department's Office of Public Affairs (OPA) about the Committee's ongoing investigation into the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative tax-exempt applicants.  A senior OPA  official -- under the apparent mistaken belief he had called the staff of Ranking Member Elijah E. Cummings -- asked if the Committee would release Committee documents to the media so that the Department could publicly comment on the material.  I am extremely troubled by this attempt to improperly coordinate the release of Committee documents with the Minority staff.  This effort to preemptively release incomplete and selectively chosen information undermines the Department's claims that it is responding in good faith."

Issa then gets specific about the DOJ's attempted collaboration with Democrat Committee members to undermine the Committee's investigation:

"At 5:01 p.m. on Friday, September 5, 2014, the Oversight Majority Committee's communications office received a telephone call from a senior OPA official.  The junior Committee press office employee answering the call identified the office as 'Oversight Press.'  The man identified himself and asked to speak by name with a senior member of the Committee's communication team.  Although the Department's OPA has never before called the Committee's communications office, the Commettee communications employee, in his office with two other senior Committee employees, took the call on speaker phone and identified himself by name."

Issa explains further:

"The Department's OPA employee identified himself again, and explained that the Department's Office of Legislative Affairs had already contacted the policy staff to provide them with advanced notice that a letter and documents from the Department would be forthcoming that evening in response to the Majority's requests about Andrew Strelka, a former Justice Department Attorney who had previously worked for Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Exempt Organizations Director Lois Lerner.  The OPA employee stated that the Department's Office of Legislative Affairs would not allow him to release the material being sent to the Committee directly to the media, but stated the Department's desire to get the material in the hands of interested reporters so that the Department could comment on it 'before the Majority' could share it...The Department's OPA employee then asked the Committee employee if the Committee would agree to release the material to selected reporters and thereby allow the Department the opportunity to comment publicly on it.  Caught off guard by the unusual nature of the call and the odd request, the Committee employee asked the OPA employee to e-mail the material for evaluation.  At this point, the OPA employee abruptly placed the call on hold for approximately three minutes."

Issa explains that the OPA employee was "audibly shaken" and that he then attempted to change his story:

"When the Department's OPA employee returned to the call, he was audibly shaken.  He immediately stated that there was a 'change of plans' and that there would be no effort from the Department to release material early and that the Department instead would 'defer to the Chairman.'  In a circuitous monologue that followed, the OPA employee stated that the reason for his telephone call was to improve OPA's working relationship with the Committee's communications team.  He asked if the Committee had seen his previous statement regarding Mr. Strelka and proceeded to pitch the idea that the Department and the Committee should 'help one another,' while simultaneously saying that 'you need to say what you need to say.'  He also asked if the Committee had contact information for Rep. Jim Jordan's office because he wanted to make them aware of his previous statement regarding Mr. Strelka.  The OPA employee then suggested that if the Committee provided the Department with a 'heads up' on future media statements and releases, the Department would 'reciprocate.' "

When the Department of Justice employee was asked to clarify "about whether or not the letter and documents he had referred to earlier in the call would be delivered on Friday evening," he "attempted to walk back his earlier statement."

Issa explains:

"He now stated that he did not know when materials would be delivered.  He concluded the telephone call by asking that if the material was produced, whether the Committee was planning to release the material publicly. The Committee employee responded that the Committee had no intention of releasing any such material that evening."

According to Issa the Justice Department's OPA employee then sent an email to the Committee employee "with a statement that he had provided to the media in response to a letter sent by Subcommittee Chairman Jim Jordan regarding Andrew Strelka days earlier.  The OPA employee promised to 'follow up' with the Committee employee 'when I hear the next set of materials are [sic] transmitted.' "

That evening there apparently was an attempt to mitigate damages from the alleged "wrong-number" call.  Issa said that the [Justice] Department's Office of Legislative Affairs "transmitted a cover letter to the Committee that evening at 8:18 p.m. The production of documents continued until 8:36 p.m.  At 8:39 p.m. the Department's OPA employee sent an e-mail to the Committee employee noting, 'I am told we have sent the department's response to your boss' letter....'  He continued: 'If you decide next week to issue anything from a press standpoint, any real-time or after-the-fact heads up you might be willing to provide would be greatly appreciated.  I would be happy to do the same on our end and flag any press statements as well.' "

Issa then rips open with the rebuke:

"In this day and age, emails and other electronic communications are sometimes erroneously shared, but I am nonetheless disturbed to receive confirmation through this incident of apparently longstanding collaboration between the Obama Administration and Ranking Member Cummings' staff to obfuscate and prejudice the Committee's work through under-the-table coordination.   This highly partisan and combative approach to oversight by the Department shows a disregard for the independent investigatory prerogatives of Congress and a deliberate attempt to influence the course of a congressional investigation.  This approach is unseemly for our nation's chief law enforcement agency and inconsistent with the longstanding Congressional practice of ensuring that both the Majority and Minority have equal access to information provided by Excecutive Branch agencies."

Issa continues:

"The OPA employee's subsequent explanation that he simply called to improve the Office of Public Affairs' working relationship with the Committee is inconsistent with statements and requests he made before he placed the call on hold.  His decision to place the call on hold that led to an abrupt change of direction only occurred after my staff balked at acquiescing to a request that was clearly intended for the Committee Minority.  It strains credulity to believe that the individuals who had never spoken to each other before 5:01 p.m. on a Friday afternoon at the end of a District Work Period in the waning days of the 113th Congress.  The initial explanation that he sought assistance in preemptively releasing Committee material to the media so that the Department could publicly comment -- was clearly the true motivation for his telephone call ... The Department's efforts to prejudice the Committee's oversight work demands examination..."

Issa now wants the Department of Justice to provide a detailed explanation for each of the Department's ex parte  communications with the Oversight Committee Minority Members or staff about Committee investigations or strategies for blocking and undermining oversight.  And he wants the Attorney General to provide information about the number of times the Department has communicated with Minority staff to the exclusion of the Majority staff, along with the dates of those communications and their details.

The DOJ employee, Brian Fallon,  that allegedly made the erroneous call, however is not having any of it.  He told Al Kamen and Colby Itkowitz of the Washington Post that:

"...he did call the committee Friday night and asked to speak with a particular person in the chairman’s office. But he declined to comment on Issa’s characterization of the call or whether he thought that person was a member of the Democratic staff...'There is nothing inappropriate about department staff having conversations with both the majority and minority staff, as they prepare responses to formal inquires,' Fallon said. 'That includes conversations between spokespeople for the department and the committee.'..."


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