Senators Byron Dorgan, John Kerry and Richard Durbin pulled a fast one last week on their congressional colleagues. They tried to bury forever documents alleging that senior government officials tried to transform portions of the IRS and the Justice Department into a goon squad for attacking political enemies and aiding political friends.
Naturally, they didn’t declare their intentions openly. Instead, Sen. Dorgan attached an innocent looking amendment to the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations bill that will fund government operations after September 30. The last-minute amendment read:
“At the end of the bill, add the following:
“SEC. __ . (a) None of the funds appropriated or made available in this Act or any other ACT may be used to fund the independent counsel investigation of Henry Cisneros after June 1, 2005.
“(b) Not later than July 1, 2005, the Government Accountability Office (sic) shall provide the Committee on Appropriations of each House with a detailed accounting of the costs associated with the independent counsel investigation of Henry Cisneros.”
Before detailing the sleight of hand, let’s consider the background. Former FBI Director Louis Freeh insisted on the appointment of an Independent Counsel in 1995 after learning that then-Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros shuttled payments to his mistress without reporting them to the IRS. Once the news went public, Cisneros resigned from office, his previously promising political career in tatters. He later admitted to a misdemeanor and paid a fine of $10,000. President Clinton pardoned him in 2001.
Dorgan’s bill would shut down the 10-year probe conducted by Independent Counsel David Barrett’s investigation, but it would add something unprecedented in the case of special or independent counsels: it would prevent the publication of the counsel’s report on the case. A decade’s worth of investigations — sworn testimony, documentation of alleged abuses, grand-jury proceedings, etc. — would vanish without a trace.
In this instance, that would mean burying charges that key officials in the Justice Department and the IRS abused their power by going easy on Cisneros and targeting political opponents of Bill Clinton. Those charges — not the Cisneros case — have served as the focal point of Barrett’s investigation for the last several years. While Senator Dorgan and his colleagues may not know this, lawyers for Henry Cisneros and other Clinton-era public servants do. They also know that Barrett is the first man ever to receive grand-jury subpoena power to look at the inner workings of the IRS.
A Dorgan press release summarizes the senator’s case for quashing the report: “The Independent Counsel was appointed ten years ago, but has failed to file a report and continues to spend millions of dollars, despite the fact that the subject long ago resigned from office, pled guilty to a misdemeanor, paid a $10,000 fine, and received a presidential pardon.”
The argument has unmistakable appeal, especially since Barrett has gotten less bang for the buck than any previous independent counsel (one conviction for $20 million dollars).
Nevertheless, the claim is misleading. Barrett isn’t responsible for dragging out the investigation or adding to its cost. As the Wall Street Journal noted in an April 22 editorial, “any blame for this delay lies mainly with Mr. Cisneros’ lawyers at Williams and Connolly, who have filed more than 190 motions and appeals; one single appeal took some 18 months to deal with. The 400-page-plus report has been largely done since last August, and awaits only a requisite period for review and response by those named in its pages. The only thing threatening a hold-up past June are further defense motions seeking still more delay.”
Barrett also stands accused of wasting money, even though he has claimed in a letter to members of Congress: “This Office undergoes a complete GAO audit not once, but twice a year, to which we provide full assistance and cooperation. I have never received a complaint from the GAO. To my knowledge, the only person to whom a GAO official expressed a concern was to a Washington Post reporter for a Washington Post article on April 1, 2005. The Washington Post article was relied upon by Senator Dorgan in introducing SA 399.”
Yet, even if Barrett were profligate, wouldn’t the public have a right to know whether government officials abused the IRS and its extraordinary powers for political purposes? Why not insist on publishing the report, and conducting a GAO audit of the independent counsel, rather than singling out the counsel while burning his work?
This gets us to the heart of the issue: Senators Dorgan, Kerry and Durbin have been lured into sponsoring a cover-up of what could be a hair-raising case of governmental malfeasance. As the Journal noted, “abuse of the taxing power is about as serious as corruption can get in our democracy.”
One would assume that senators of any party not only would want to know more about allegations of this sort, but would insist on going after agents responsible for such a breach of the public trust, especially if the bad actors worked for the IRS, Justice Department or the White House. After all, once a federal agency decides to engage in political chicanery, it’s not likely to stop just because an administration changes.
Whatever abuses Barrett may have found in the Clinton era very well could persist into this administration, only with a pro-Republican tilt. Yet, the sponsors of the midnight amendment have adopted the Sgt. Shultz defense: They know nothing — and they want the American public clothed in ignorance as well. (Compare this behavior to the alacrity with which Senate Democrats have retailed unsworn, over-the-transom complaints about John Bolton.)
The Dorgan-Kerry-Durbin amendment made it past Democratic and Republican Senators because they had no idea the trio had added the cover-up language to a measure that, among other things, finances continuing military and humanitarian operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Fortunately, Congress still has an opportunity to ensure that the Barrett report sees the light of day. Members of the House-Senate conference, which must produce a final version of the appropriations bill for the president’s signature, still can strip out the report-killing amendment.
Here is a list of names and phone numbers for the House and Senate conferees:
Sen. Thad Cochran — (202) 224-5054
Sen. Ted Stevens — (202) 224-3004
Sen. Arlen Specter — (202) 224-4254
Sen. Pete Domenici — (202) 224-6621
Sen. Kit Bond — (202) 224-5721
Sen. Mitch McConnell — (202) 224-2541
Sen. Conrad Burns — (202) 224-2644
Sen. Richard Shelby — (202) 224-5744
Sen. Judd Gregg — (202) 224-3324
Sen. Robert Bennett — (202) 224-5444
Sen. Larry Craig— (202) 224-2752
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison — (202) 224-5922
Sen. Michael DeWine — (202) 224-2315
Sen. Sam Brownback — (202) 224-6521
Sen. Wayne Allard — (202) 224-5941
Sen. Robert Byrd — (202) 224-3954
Sen. Daniel Inouye — (202) 224-3934
Sen. Patrick Leahy — (202) 224-4242
Sen. Tom Harkin — (202) 224-3254
Sen. Barbara Mikulski — (202) 224-4654
Sen. Harry Reid — (202) 224-3542
Sen. Herb Kohl — (202) 224-5653
Sen. Patty Murray — (202) 224-2621
Sen. Byron Dorgan — (202) 224-2551
Sen. Diane Feinstein — (202) 224-3841
Sen. Richard Durbin — (202) 224-2152
Sen. Tim Johnson — (202) 224-5842
Sen. Mary Landrieu — (202) 224-5824
Jerry Lewis (CA, 41st District) — (202) 225-5861
C.W. Bill Young (FL, 10th District) — (202) 225-5961
Ralph Regula (OH, 16th District) — (202) 225-3059
Hal Rogers (KY, 5th District) — (202) 225-4601
Frank Wolf (VA, 10th District) — (202) 225-5136
Jim Kolbe (AZ, 8th District) — (202) 225-2542
James T. Walsh (NY, 25th District) — (202) 225-3701
Charles H. Taylor (NC, 11th District) — (202) 225-6401
Dave Hobson (OH, 7th District) — (202) 225-4324
Henry Bonilla (TX, 23rd District) — (202) 225-4511
Joe Knollenberg (MI, 9th District) — (202) 225-5802
Dave Obey (WI, 7th District) — (202) 225-3365
John P. Murtha (PA, 12th District) — (202) 225-2065
Norman D. Dicks (WA, 6th District) — (202) 225-5916
Martin Olav Sabo (MN, 5th District) — (202) 225-4755
Alan B. Mollohan (WV, 1st District) — (202) 225-4172
Peter J. Visclosky (IN, 1st District) — (202) 225-2461
Nita M. Lowey (NY, 18th District) — (202) 225-6506
Share your thoughts with Tony. E-mail him at email@example.com.