WASHINGTON – A House Judiciary Committee Web page asking former and current Justice Department officials to offer their stories on politicization of the department "launched prematurely," but is still legitimate, Democratic Chairman John Conyers said Thursday.
The response came after Texas Rep. Lamar Smith demanded the new page be removed from the committee Web site, and called it a partisan attempt to persecute the Bush administration and misuse taxpayer dollars for a witch-hunt.
Conyers said the attacks by House Republicans over the page are creating a "sideshow and a distraction" from the real issue — the firings of eight U.S. attorneys last December, he said.
"Some have raised allegations about a Web page that was designed to give department whistleblowers a mechanism to securely communicate with the committee. The Web page was launched prematurely, but the content of it represented a good faith interpretation of House rules," Conyers said in a statement.
"Within three hours of learning about a different interpretation of the rules and to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, the Web site was edited — removing one word — and is now, under any interpretation, in full compliance with the rules," Conyers continued.
During a Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law hearing to discuss the firing of eight U.S. attorneys and featuring Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, Smith, the ranking Republican on the full panel, complained that the new page, called Write Congress to Right Justice, seems to solicit information on politicization of the Justice Department, but in fact only seeks information about the Bush administration and not previous administrations.
Smith noted that Republicans were not consulted before the page was launched and pointed out that the Web page states that information sent by private individuals will be "received and reviewed by a select group of members of the majority staff of the Judiciary Committee of the United States House of Representatives."
"This Web site purports to solicit evidence, but it actually appears to be a partisan persecution of the administration," Smith said. He added that he spoke to the House parliamentarian, who apparently told Smith that he is "very troubled" by the site.
"This committee, I'm sure we all would agree, should not engage in the partisan persecution of the administration's public officials," Smith said.
Smith's complaint referenced several quotes from a letter on the page from Conyers, D-Mich. In the letter, Conyers tells readers that the page was created "in response to numerous requests" by former and current career attorneys at the Justice Department who are concerned about politicization there and fear that revealing their concerns will result in retribution by political appointees.
It notes that many of the expressed concerns predate the current investigation into the firing of "at least nine" U.S. attorneys that have sparked months of hearings and Democratic efforts to shame Attorney General Alberto Gonzales into stepping down. But the committee wants to receive only "information concerning the possible politicization of the United States Department of Justice since 2001. The incoming communications should be limited to those who represent that they are or were employed by the Department of Justice during that period.
"The committee is looking for concrete and specific actions taken or statements made by management-level officials of the department that have led career employees to be concerned that law enforcement actions will not be handled on a completely non-partisan, impartial manner but will be unduly influenced by partisan political or other inappropriate considerations," the letter reads.
A stock form is then offered on the next page for individuals to fill out required fields and and write the details of their experiences.
The letter says names, titles and identities of senders will be "maintained in the strictest confidence" and "the substantive information provided will be utilized for official committee business to the extent that it can be verified and confirmed."
It also recommends those wishing to contact the committee not use departmental e-mail so as to "prevent such unfortunate retaliatory actions."
"We recommend that current or former employees use personal e-mail to this Web site or call or write the staff of the committee" at the majority Democrats' main line.
Prior to Conyers' statement, subcommittee chairwoman Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., said she was not aware of the Web page, and would review the page to determine whether it is problematic or necessary actions need to be taken to correct it.
FOX News' Mike Majchrowitz contributed to this report.