State IG hearing illustrates panel's conflict on probes

A high-profile House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing Wednesday on State Department Inspector General Howard Krongard generated new charges in a mostly behind-the-scenes spat over how the committee treats witnesses.

The committee's majority and minority staffs have for months battled over what Republicans claim is Democrats' insistence that witnesses agree to voluntary interviews rather than sworn depositions, which under committee rules contain protections for witness confidentiality and restrictions on transcript releases.

Voluntary interviews, with fewer restrictions, allow Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., to publicize attention-grabbing allegations more quickly, Republicans charge.

During a testy exchange Wednesday with Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., Waxman said the committee gives witnesses the option of a deposition or a voluntary interview. His assertion was quickly challenged after the hearing by Republican staffers. "That's just not true," said Keith Ausbrook, the committee's minority counsel.

Ausbrook said Democrats have told numerous witnesses interviewed in the Krongard probe that depositions are not an option, though in some cases they relented when the witnesses declined to cooperate otherwise.

He cited a Sept. 25 e-mail from Democratic staffer David Rapallo to State Department IG congressional liaison Terry Heide regarding the testimony of Assistant Inspector General for Audits Mark Duda.

"The committee is not offering a voluntary deposition at this time," Rapallo told Heide, adding that the panel was offering a voluntary interview.

Duda ultimately was deposed.

Heide became a target of the investigation after holding a series of meetings with IG staffers to advise them on their legal rights.

In a Sept. 28 letter and a report released Wednesday, Waxman said Heide intimidated employees by telling them they could be fired based on their testimony.

The letter said she might have broken whistleblower laws.

Republicans and a lawyer retained by Heide argued she was targeted in part because she counseled the employees to insist on deposition, sparking conflict with committee Democrats.

"One of the reasons [Democrats] got mad at Terry Heide is because she started asking questions," said David Laufman, a lawyer Heide hired last month.

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