House to Fight Subpoenas

Posted September 18, 2007 at 6:36pm

The general counsel of the House is expected to ask a federal court to quash subpoenas issued to 13 Members of Congress by lawyers for a California businessman accused of bribing former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.), Congressional sources said Tuesday.

The subpoenas, issued by lawyers for Brent Wilkes, sought testimony from nine Republicans and four Democrats, but the counsel’s office said the Members could not respond because it was unclear what the subpoenas are seeking.


Wilkes goes on trial in October on bribery and conspiracy charges for allegedly giving Cunningham hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, gifts and favors, including lavish meals and travel, boats and antiques and the services of two prostitutes in exchange for Cunningham’s efforts to direct Defense Department contracts to Wilkes’ company.


Wilkes’ attorneys — led by Mark Geragos, who also has defended former Rep. Gary Condit (D-Calif.) and pop icon Michael Jackson — subpoenaed Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Reps. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), John Doolittle (R-Calif.), Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.), Jerry Weller (R-Ill.), John Murtha (D-Pa.), Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) and Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) for testimony in the case. The subpoenas also asked some of the Members for documents related to the case.


But the Members, acting on advice from the House general counsel, all refused to comply with the subpoenas.


In a Sept. 6 letter to Geragos, Assistant House Counsel John Filamor wrote: “Your investigator, Scott Ross, indicated that you were issuing these subpoenas to the Members in their official capacities as Members of Congress, but Mr. Ross was unable to elaborate as to what testimony you seek from each member.”


Filamor explained that under House rules, Members can respond to subpoenas “only if they are able to determine, among other things, that the information sought is ‘material and relevant.’” Not knowing what information Geragos is seeking, there is no way for Members to determine whether it is relevant. In addition, Filamor pointed out that documents being requested from Members of Congress may be subject to privilege under the Constitution’s Speech or Debate Clause. “It appears that many, if not all, of the documents you seek fall under this privilege,” Filamor wrote.


The Members all filed formal notifications with the Speaker on Monday night that they had received the subpoenas and intended not to comply, but otherwise their offices have had little to say about the matter, and the counsel’s office is handling their interactions with Geragos.


Knollenberg spokesman Trent Wisecup said, “When we talked to [House counsel] they told us the subpoena was overly broad … they recommended that Members not comply with it.”


Wisecup said he has no idea why Wilkes would want Knollenberg’s testimony but speculated that it may be “kind of a fishing expedition” or an effort to turn the Members into “character witnesses by saying, ‘Look I gave [contributions] to other Members and it was all on the up and up.’”


Wisecup said, “If there is any way that congressman Knollenberg can avoid testifying in this trial, he will.”


Similarly, Blunt spokeswoman Antonia Ferrier said the Minority Whip “expects to fully cooperate in this legal matter” but “House counsel has determined that compliance with this subpoena is inconsistent with House rules.”


Like the other Members subpoenaed in the case, “We do not know why Mr. Blunt has been issued this subpoena,” Ferrier said.


Congressional sources said the House counsel’s office is likely to file a motion to quash the subpoenas early next week. Wilkes’ trial is scheduled to begin Oct. 2.


Geragos did not respond to requests for comment on this story.