A lead House Republican is accusing the Justice Department Office of Public Affairs of improperly trying to coordinate with House Democrats on the release of subpoenaed documents in the IRS investigation.
Justice Department Director of Public Affairs Brian Fallon called the House Oversight Committee Friday evening and mistakenly spoke to Republican staff thinking he was speaking to Democrats, according to a spokesman for Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).
In that call, Fallon said his agency was about to turn over some IRS documents. He stated that he was not being allowed to release the material directly to the media, but that he wanted to get it into the hands of certain reporters “before the [Republican] Majority” had the chance to share it. That's according to a letter Issa sent yesterday to Attorney General Eric Holder.
[quote]“The [Justice Department's Fallon] then asked the [Republican] Committee employee if the Committee would agree to release the material to selected reporters and thereby allow the [Justice] Department to comment publicly on it.”--Issa to Holder[/quote]
As the telephone conversation continued, Issa’s staff says Fallon realized he was speaking to committee Republicans instead of Democrats and "walked back" the conversation.
Issa called the incident a “deliberate attempt to influence the course of a congressional investigation.”
A staffer for the lead Democrat on the Oversight Committee, Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland) responded by saying, [quote]"If Chairman Issa’s account is accurate, this sounds like a dumb request from a Justice Department press staffer that Democrats never received. If Democrats believe disclosing documents will better inform the public, they will make those decisions on the merits, and there is no restriction on them doing so, just as there is no restriction on the Chairman doing so.”[/quote]
The Justice Department's Fallon today issued a statement saying, “There is nothing inappropriate about department staff having conversations with both the [Republican] majority and [Democratic] minority staff as they prepare responses to formal inquiries. That includes conversations between the spokespeople for the [Justice] Department and the [Oversight ] committee.”
The Justice Department is simultaneously investigating the IRS while defending the IRS in private litigation. Republicans have raised questions about alleged conflicts of interest in the Justice Department's roles. They have asked to interview former Justice Department attorney Andrew Strelka who worked for IRS manager Lois Lerner during the time period in which she and her office are accused of improperly targeting conservatives. The Justice Department has balked saying that Strelka has nothing relevant to offer. Holder has also said his agency is conducting a fair and independent investigation of the IRS.
A spokesman for Oversight Democrats today said that Issa is the one who controls information, "routinely excluding Democratic staff from calls and meetings with federal officials... and routinely leaking documents – or portions of them – out of context and without any committee vote or debate."
When asked what was in the documents the Justice Department turned over to Congress Friday night after the phone call, an Oversight spokesman would only say they were relevant to the investigation but wouldn't comment further.