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Decision looms in Holder's Fast and Furious contempt case

 

While most of Washington has moved on, legal scholars expect a decision soon in a potentially landmark case in one of the federal government's most damaging scandals -- Operation Fast and Furious.

Republican lawmakers, after holding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt for failing to turn over records they had subpoenaed, are still waiting for a judge to rule on their case.

But they have not forgotten.

Mexican bandits killed Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in December 2010 using guns sold in a U.S. government gun-running operation known as  Operation Fast and Furious. After a lengthy investigation and contentious hearings on Capitol Hill, the House of Representatives held Holder in contempt. President Obama stepped in and claimed executive privilege over the documents, but House lawyers went to a federal judge seeking to force the administration to turn over records they believe show a cover-up.

"When you consider that the attorney general himself may very well have been complicit in knowing that was a false statement and insisting they continue to stand by it for 10 months -- you do have a serious question if Congress can fairly evaluate these individuals staying in office and staying in their jobs if in fact they can't be counted on to tell the truth," House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., told Fox News on Wednesday.

The documents sought by the House involve communications between the White House and the Department of Justice, as well as internal reports and emails among 18 senior level DOJ officials. The documents relate almost entirely to a Feb. 4 letter in which the Justice Department denied knowing anything about the gun-running operation. That turned out to be false, and Republicans want to know who was responsible. 

The House maintains it is entitled to the materials under its constitutionally protected oversight responsibilities. The administration claims the Justice Department can withhold documents from Congress, even if Congress has issued a subpoena because, in Holder's words, "the Committee has not established that privileged documents are demonstrably critical to the responsible fulfillment of the Committee's legitimate legislative functions."

The House vote was the first time Congress held an attorney general in contempt, and the case marked the first and only time Obama has asserted executive privilege.

"The American people were lied to on national TV that no guns were allowed to be walked and they (the Justice Department) kept to that statement for 10 long months while the Terry family suffered questions over the loss of their son," said Issa. "Those who were involved in knowing that it was false, communicating that it was false and perpetuated that false statement need to be held accountable or at least exposed."

Lawyers expect the judge to rule in the next three weeks. Regardless, either side is likely to appeal and those involved say it is possible the case won't be resolved until Obama has left office.

Meanwhile, the $25 million wrongful death case brought by Terry's family also hangs in the balance. Terry was murdered in December 2010 with weapons sold by Lone Wolf, a gun store enlisted by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to sell guns to known felons.

Two men are in custody for Terry's death, but the family also sued senior ATF officials and Lone Wolf owner Andre Howard for negligence, claiming both knew or should have known the weapons would kill.

The agents, who are represented by lawyers paid for by the Justice Department, claim immunity while the gun store has sided with the Terry's, saying Howard was also misled by the ATF -- which falsely claimed it was tracking the guns he sold.

"Mr. Howard was asked essentially to be an agent of ATF and DOJ with respect to these very suspicious, highly questionable, now-proven-to-be-illegal sales of weapons," said Lone Wolf attorney Bradley Jardine. "He wonders what happened to those guns just as much as they (the Terry's) do. He wants answers just as much as they do."

The agents asked a federal judge to dismiss the case. Lawyers in the case expect a ruling in the next few months. 

Reached by Fox News, an ATF official said the agency could not comment on "ongoing litigation."

William La Jeunesse joined FOX News Channel (FNC) in March 1998 and currently serves as a Los Angeles-based correspondent.