House Oversight and Government Reform Committee staffers appear close to an agreement that would limit the number of e-mails the panel will demand from the Republican National Committee as part of an investigation of political presentations given to federal agencies.
The document request grew out of the House committee’s discovery that the head of the General Services Administration, Lurita Doan, had hosted a January briefing by White House political deputy J. Scott Jennings describing Republican political goals for the 2008 elections. Jennings and others used RNC e-mail accounts to discuss the briefing materials, leading Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) to issue two broad subpoenas for RNC e-mail accounts. On a party-line vote, the Oversight and Government Reform Committee approved those subpoenas April 25.
The first subpoena requested information on the number of White House officials who have maintained RNC e-mail accounts since Jan. 20, 2001. The second sought specific
e-mails that related to political presentations, PowerPoint presentations or any other efforts to use the resources of federal agencies to support Republican candidates.
Just prior to the Memorial Day recess, ranking member Tom Davis (R-Va.) and other committee Republicans urged Waxman to scale back his request for documents from the RNC. While the Republicans wrote that Waxman’s inquiries into the political use of government resources “constitute legitimate exercises of the committee’s oversight authority,” they argued that the breadth of the committee’s requests and subpoenas “far exceed the legitimate needs of the committee.”
In particular, the Republicans complained Waxman is seeking broad details about the use of RNC accounts, including daily tallies of the number of e-mails to and from each RNC account maintained by a White House employee. “Even when you get that, you will have no more information about the political briefings than when you began,” the Republicans wrote.
The Republican letter echoed a request the RNC made several times before the subpoenas were issued: that the Democrats allow the RNC to search the e-mail accounts with relevant search terms, in order to narrow the document production to those e-mails that are directly relevant to the political briefings. Democrats refused at the time, arguing the search terms suggested by the GOP would not have turned up the presentation Jennings gave to the GSA employees.
But Republican and Democratic staffers on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee say they are close to an agreement on search terms that would be acceptable to limit the scope of documents the RNC is required to produce.
“We may have come to a point where we can come up with search terms,” a Republican source said last week. While Davis and other Republicans accept the legitimacy of the concern about White House-sponsored political briefings, “you don’t want to have either party rummaging through all of the e-mails of the RNC,” this source said.
A Democratic source said, “We wanted to know the universe [of e-mail messages] before we actually agreed to search terms.” The RNC has since provided data about the account users and the number of messages, and “now we are optimistic that we will be able to get an agreement” on search terms, this source said.
A Republican Party source said the discussions about the scope for the e-mail universe may have actually delayed production of documents to Waxman’s committee.
“We’ve received a steady stream of demands for the RNC to pay experts to conduct statistical analysis of the e-mail data,” and the RNC “has complied with all of those requests at great expense.” Several Republican sources put the price tag thus far at “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” though none could provide a more specific tally.
Meanwhile, this Republican source added: “We have been asking the [Oversight and Government Reform] committee to negotiate with us on the terms for us to actually review these documents,” but the Democrats have resisted. “It is beginning to seem like the committee is less interested in reviewing documents and more interested in racking up the RNC forensic computer expert expenses.”
Once search terms are agreed upon, the RNC still would have to take the time to run the search on the e-mails, then review each message to see whether either the party or the White House wants to assert a privilege that would prevent the release of the message, a process that could take many weeks, meaning the Oversight committee may still be months away from actually receiving any documents that are relevant to the political briefings.
The Republican Party source noted that the House Judiciary Committee has asked the RNC to search the same category of e-mails — accounts maintained by White House employees — for messages related to the firing of nine federal prosecutors, and that document production already is under way.
“The House Judiciary Committee immediately agreed to reasonable search terms, and reached a deal with us on which we are currently reviewing documents for the committee,” this source said. The Judiciary Committee did not request any statistical analysis.
A Democratic staffer with the Oversight panel responded: “The committee is conducting a responsible investigation to assess the scope of any Presidential Records Act violation that may have been caused by the use of RNC e-mail accounts by senior White House officials.”
Lurita Doan, the official whose presentation touched off this dispute, is scheduled to testify again before the Oversight and Government Reform Committee on June 13.