Plea Sheds Light on Impasse Over U.S. Attorneys

Posted March 23, 2007 at 6:22pm

The guilty plea last week by an Interior Department official who admitted lying to Congress highlights the dangers that White House and Justice Department officials may face in the Congressional inquiry of the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, legal experts said Friday.

But the Interior case also raises questions about the importance of written documentation of witness testimony, which is a key point of contention between the White House and Congressional leaders of the investigation into the firings.

J. Steven Griles, the former deputy secretary of Interior, pleaded guilty on Friday to lying to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in 2005 during its investigation into disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s dealings with American Indian tribes.

Griles’ plea acknowledges that in interviews with committee investigators and in public testimony, he withheld information about his close relationship with Abramoff. Griles told the committee that he had no personal relationship with Abramoff and treated him like any other lobbyist, when in fact a woman with whom Griles had a romantic relationship introduced him to Abramoff and became a conduit for information between the two men.

A Senate staffer points out that the case against Griles is built on transcripts of interviews with Senate investigators and public testimony — which is exactly the crux of the debate between Congressional investigators and the White House regarding the U.S. attorneys.

“This kind of underscores the importance of doing formal depositions to have proceedings transcribed,” this source said. “But for the fact that this individual’s testimony was transcribed, his lie would not have been provable.”

Excerpts of the Griles transcripts were included in the documents filed by the Justice Department on Friday in support of his guilty plea.

President Bush has offered to allow presidential adviser Karl Rove, former White House counsel Harriet Miers and two of their deputies to give informal interviews to Congress. They would be held in private, without transcripts and not under oath.

Democratic Senators have said this is insufficient to get to the truth in the firing probe. At a press conference Friday, Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) called on the White House to negotiate a way to let top aides testify before Congress.

But other legal experts suggest that anyone lying to Congress may be in jeopardy, even without a transcript or public testimony.

Brendan Sullivan, who defended Oliver North during the Iran-Contra scandal, said, “the law is written that lying to Congress in connection with its official duties is a crime,” regardless of whether the speaker is under oath.

That is why “it should be considered dangerous to give any testimony under oath or any statement to any investigative agent or body — even if the witness tells the absolute truth,” Sullivan said, “[because] there can always be several people who remember things differently.”

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), ranking member on Judiciary, proposed having Rove and Miers testify in open session, with transcripts but not under oath. Specter argued in a statement earlier last week that the lack of an oath did not mean that the White House aides would appear “without risk if they do not tell the truth.”

Specter said that under criminal statutes, there was a “tough penalty” for making a false statement to any government body.“Now, it would be preferable to have the matter transcribed. But the FBI has brought many cases for false official statements just with note-taking,” Specter said.

He added that there was nothing to prevent an unofficial note-taker, rather than a court reporter, from compiling informal notes of the proceedings.

Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University, said that criminal prosecutions of lying to Congress are quite rare, and any such case would be more complicated if someone is accused of lying about the firing of the U.S. attorneys.

Gillers notes that the Justice Department is responsible for prosecuting charges of lying to Congress. That could cause “excruciating procedural problems” if Congress were to allege that Justice Department officials involved in the firing of the U.S. attorneys lied to Congressional investigators, because the Justice Department would not be in a position to investigate its own officials.

Sullivan said that because of the breadth of legal jeopardy, any good defense attorney would counsel their client not to testify or agree to be interviewed by Congress.

Nevertheless, Senate Democrats announced Friday that Kyle Sampson, former chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, would testify voluntarily before the Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

Sampson resigned after the Justice Department released a flurry of e-mails that portrayed him as orchestrating the ouster of U.S. attorneys on the basis of their loyalty to the Bush administration. Gonzales all but blamed the former Senate Judiciary staffer for the entire debacle by misleading him and other Justice Department officials.

“Kyle Sampson testifying voluntarily is a major breakthrough since he appears to dispute [the Justice Department] story about who knew what and when,” Schumer said.

Rachel Van Dongen contributed to this report.