Partisan dispute flares over Waxman's investigative tactics

A "long-simmering" dispute between the majority and minority staffs of House Oversight and Government Reform Committee over investigative tactics has come to a head with the panel's probe of the State Department's inspector general, committee Republicans say.

Republicans blasted a letter written Friday by Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who accused officials in State Department Inspector General Howard Krongard's office of threatening witnesses who are cooperating with Waxman's investigation of Krongard. The committee has been looking into complaints by employees in Krongard's office who say their boss blocked investigations that could embarrass the Bush administration.

Republicans said the letter is the latest example of Waxman's tendency to publicize allegations without vetting them and to choose publicity over fairness to individuals involved in an investigation.

A Waxman spokeswoman declined to comment in detail, but a staffer said, referring to the line of inquiry in the IG probe: "Allegations of witness intimidation are serious and deserve the responsible investigation the committee is giving them."

Waxman's letter cited notes made by Special Agent Ron Militana at a Sept. 25 meeting he and another agent had with Krongard's congressional liaison, Terry Heide, and an attorney, to discuss the agents' upcoming interviews with the committee.

According to Militana's notes, Heide said during a discussion of whistleblower laws that the agents could face retaliation based on what they tell committee investigators. "Howard [Krongard] can fire you," she allegedly said.

Quoting the agents and others who asked to remain anonymous, Waxman wrote that the meeting may have violated laws against witness tampering and retaliating against whistleblowers.

In an interview, Heide did not deny the statement attributed to her. She said Waxman misconstrued legal advice as a threat and failed to mention that she encouraged witnesses to cooperate.

She said that while she spoke to committee staff regularly to set interview dates, no one from the committee contacted her before the release of Waxman's letter or solicited her version of the meeting. "The only person who is being retaliated against is me," Heide said.

Keith Ausbrook, minority counsel for the committee, said the letter showed a lack of "basic fairness" or any effort "to conduct a modicum of investigation before [making] a public accusation against a public servant."

Ausbrook said the letter relates to ongoing disputes between Democratic and Republican staffers over whether the minority may advise witnesses on their rights and whether witnesses should agree to voluntary interviews. Heide, in consultation with the Republican staff, had informed employees in the State Department IG's office that they could request a subpoena compelling them to give a deposition.

Democrats have pushed for voluntary interviews instead of obtaining depositions, which imposes more restrictions on the majority, Ausbrook said. Depositions require giving the committee's minority three-days notice and getting the ranking member's approval before releasing a transcript.

Both sides last week agreed that Democratic staff would no longer ask witnesses if they had talked to Republicans about committee procedures. "It intimidates witnesses to be asked about how they got their interpretation of the rules," Ausbrook wrote in an e-mail to Phil Barnett, director of the committee's majority staff.

Though Barnett agreed, both sides continue to spar over procedures, Ausbrook said.

He said Democrats have regularly committed minor violations of committee rules, such as delivering transcripts late and failing to give sufficient notice of hearings.

The majority also "sandbagged" Republicans Monday by publicly releasing, without notice, a 15-page memo for a hearing Tuesday detailing charges against State Department security contractor Blackwater USA, Ausbrook said.

Disputes over such tactics have intensified lately, Ausbrook said, adding, "It's getting to be a big deal."

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