Issa threatens to subpoena government watchdog officials

House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., is stepping up his probe of a government watchdog agency, threatening to subpoena officials after they refused to turn over records related to a January report.

The Office of Special Counsel, which enforces federal workplace rules, in January released a report concluding that during the administration of President George W. Bush, officials in the White House Office of Political Affairs and 10 departments and agencies violated the Hatch Act, which bars certain political activities by federal officials. The report focused on Cabinet officials' use of Treasury funds for travel to appearances with GOP candidates ahead of the 2006 election. The report said much of the travel, encouraged by the White House Office of Political Affairs, broke the law.

The timing, conclusions, and some of the facts in the report have since been attacked by many of those it faults, and Issa has launched an investigtion into its origins. On January 27, he demanded a series of documents such as internal emails relating to creation of the report. Oversight committee staff also interviewed acting OSC chief William Reukauf last month. In a February 16 letter, Reukauf, citing a form of executive privilege under which agencies can deny investigative information to Congress, said OSC would not turn over some of the material sought.

In a response on Monday, Issa dismissed that executive privilege claim, noting that as an agency independent of the White House conducting a non-criminal investigation-violations of the Hatch Act are civil offenses-OSC lacks standing to assert executive privilege. National Journal Daily obtained the letters.

"If … OSC continues to demonstrate unwillingness to cooperate with our investigation voluntarily, we will be forced to consider using the compulsory process," Issa wrote, in a reference to the committee's subpoena power. Issa demanded that OSC articulate further legal justification for withholding material by March 31.

Issa's letter also details a laundry list of concerns with the report and the related investigation, which OSC began in June 2007.

Issa complained that despite its release in early 2011, the report "does not even attempt to explore comparable Hatch Act scenarios under the current administration." He also reiterates concern that the January 24 release of the report came "several days" after a White House announcement that it was closing the Office of Political Affairs.

Reukauf has said OSC did not in any way coordinate release of the report with the White House, and Issa warned that any email indicating OSC contact with "any White House official or surrogate" would be "problematic."

The letter noted that OSC did not turn over a memorandum detailing early disagreements on the broad scope of the probe between career staff and the controversial former head of the agency, Scott Bloch, who initiated it. Issa wrote that after OSC staff said they were "unable to find" the memo, which was the subject of news reports in 2008, Issa's staff found it online. "It strains credulity that you were unaware of this memorandum," the letter said.

The letter also challenged the quality of the OSC report, the public version of which lacked footnotes supporting many of its factual statements. Issa urged release of a non-public version with more extensive citations, but faulted that version too, noting it includes citations from Wikipedia, an online information exchange that anyone can edit.

"OSC's lack of precision in preparing this report and its subsequent resistance to releasing a fully-cited version of its report overshadow the potential merit of the report's conclusions," the letter said.

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