He is the first attorney general in US history to ever be found in contempt of Congress. On Thursday, the US House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to find the nation’s top law enforcement official, Eric Holder, in civil and criminal contempt.
Republican members of Congress charge that Holder is deliberately obstructing a congressional investigation. They claim he’s refusing to release documents related to a botched government operation known as “Fast and Furious.”
The government’s plan allowed guns to be smuggled into Mexico, in the hope it would lead authorities to top Mexican drug cartel leaders. Instead more than a thousand weapons went missing. Some of those guns were later found at crime scenes, including one that killed Brian Terry, a US Border Patrol agent.
Darrell Issa, the Republican politician leading the contempt vote against Holder, said "Fast and Furious, the Department of Justice-permitted sale of more than 2,000 weapons that fell into the hands of the Mexican drug cartels, was both reckless and inexcusable.” He told his fellow lawmakers that Americans “still have unanswered questions" about the failed operation.
But Democratic members of Congress say the Republican-driven probe isn’t about answers. They say it’s a partisan attack, designed to embarrass President Obama and congressional Democrats in an election year. Many walked out during the contempt vote in solidarity.
Elijah Cummings, a Democratic congressman who is also investigating the scandal, said there “is no evidence that the attorney general authorized, condoned, or knew about gun walking, no evidence that the attorney general lied to Congress or engaged in a cover-up.”
The White House and the attorney general denounced Thursday’s criminal and civil contempt votes, calling them “political theatre.”
Speaking to reporters, Holder said, “It’s clear that [Republicans] were not interested in bringing an end to this dispute, or even obtaining the information they say they wanted. Ultimately, their goal was the vote that, with the help of special interests, they now have engineered.”
A US attorney in the Department of Justice could now open a criminal case to force Holder to turn over the documents to the Republican-led oversight committee. But that is unlikely - because the attorney general is the head of that department.
What is more likely is that the House of Representatives will now hire an outside attorney to file a civil lawsuit asking a federal judge to force Holder to turn over additional "Fast and Furious" documents.
It’s a process that Republicans know could take months. That means the political finger-pointing over who bears responsibility for the scandal is likely to continue until the congressional and presidential election in November. And Democrats say that was the Republican goal, all along.