Washington, D.C. – In a bipartisan, 13-2 vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee today approved legislation authored by U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) aimed at restoring a critical safeguard against political interference at the Department of Justice, a step Whitehouse said would help “restore Americans’ confidence” in the Department in the wake of the controversial tenure of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
The bill, S. 1845, deals with the rules governing communications between the White House and the Department of Justice. During the Clinton administration, a total of only seven people at the White House and the Justice Department were permitted to initiate discussions of ongoing cases or investigations, including the President, Vice President, and Attorney General. Bush administration officials changed that policy, authorizing more than 40 people at the Department and more than 400 people – in a later revision, over 900 – in the White House to initiate such conversations.
Whitehouse’s legislation would require the Department of Justice and the White House to notify Congress which officials, beyond the original seven, have engaged in such discussions. Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Senator John Cornyn (R-Tex.) have cosponsored the bill.
“Political operatives in the White House have no business engaging in sensitive case-specific conversations with Justice Department lawyers. But the Bush administration’s current policy allows just that,” Whitehouse said. “Even Attorney General Gonzales admitted that the greatest threat to the Department’s independence came from the White House, so this portal between the White House and the Department bears careful scrutiny. This bill will help restore Americans’ confidence in the administration of justice in this country, while ensuring this and future administrations have the flexibility to address exigencies.”
Whitehouse, a former U.S. Attorney, questioned Attorney General Gonzales about the revised policy during two Judiciary Committee hearings. Gonzales himself signed a 2006 memorandum further expanding the authority to discuss cases to over 900 people in the executive branch, explicitly including officials within the Office of the Vice President.
“What on Earth business does the Office of the Vice President have in the internal workings of the Department of Justice with respect to criminal investigations, civil investigations, ongoing matters?” Whitehouse asked Gonzales during a July 24 Judiciary Committee hearing. “As a general matter, I would say that that’s a good question,” the Attorney General responded.
Gonzales told Whitehouse that “I would be concerned about inappropriate access to ongoing investigations … if that’s encouraged by this kind of memorandum, I think it’s something that we ought to rethink.”
Contact the Whitehouse press office at (202) 228-6293 for copies of the Bush administration policies on White House – D.O.J. contacts, and other supporting documentation.