Partisan spat has oversight panel leaders trying to hit the right notes
The initial chorus of bipartisan harmony from the House's principal oversight panel hit a discordant note Thursday, when its lead Republican accused Democrats of being tone deaf to one alleged case of perjury while aggressively pursuing another.
The blast was sounded by House Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Darrell Issa, R-Calif., after Chairman Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., announced a new investigation of allegations that Merrill Lynch executives lied to the committee last year.
Earlier this week, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo accused Merrill Lynch of misleading Congress in November by saying it would pay out over $5 billion in executive bonuses at the end of the year when it decided to award the money earlier.
Within hours of Towns' announcement of the committee probe, Issa fired off a news release accusing the chairman of "a double standard on pursuing allegations of perjury and obstruction."
Issa has accused former Fannie Mae CEO Franklin Raines of giving false testimony to the committee in December by saying he was unaware that he received preferential treatment on a loan from Countrywide Financial. On Thursday, Issa asserted that his Democratic colleagues are looking out for their own by shielding Raines from the same scrutiny that will be applied to Merrill Lynch.
"This committee, unfortunately, applies one standard in deciding whether or not to investigate a prominent, wealthy and politically connected Democrat like Franklin Raines and another to those who aren't," Issa said in his release.
Towns reacted quickly to attempt to defuse the situation, responding in an interview that he does not object to Issa's call for scrutiny of Raines and is open to dispatching attorneys to investigate the matter.
"If [Issa is] requesting it, I don't have a problem with it at all," Towns said.
The exchange between Issa and Towns exposed what sources called a behind-the-scenes partisan spat between the committee's majority and minority staffs. Republicans have accused Democrats of dragging their feet on a Raines inquiry, noting that Towns' aides did not support a March 6 letter requesting further documentation on Countrywide's so-called Friends of Angelo VIP loan program, which charged below-market interest rates.
Democratic aides said they have been looking into the Raines matter and countered that Republicans have been more interested in scoring political points in public than coordinating a bipartisan inquiry.
Towns, known for his even-tempered style, shrugged off Issa's partisan shot as a holdover from the committee's rancorous past.
"They're so used to fighting around here," he said. "When they have a member who wants to work in a bipartisan fashion, it just takes a little while to get there."