Congressman John Tierney says he was "disappointed" by last week's unprecedented vote by the House Government Oversight Committee to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for withholding documents from the committee.
The documents are related to Operation Fast and Furious, an effort launched by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Arizona to track weapons purchased by Mexican drug cartels.
The operation intentionally allowed traceable guns to go to cartels with the hopes it would lead them to top-level criminals. Instead, the agency lost track of more than 1,000 of the firearms, two of which were found at the scene of the 2010 killing of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry. The Government Oversight Committee, of which Tierney is a member, has been investigating the matter for 16 months.
In an interview late last week, Tierney said the committee had already gotten to the bottom of the bad decisions that led to Fast and Furious, but have gone off track.
"Now we should be having reform hearings to make sure it doesn't happen again, but instead the chairman made a partisan play," he said.
The committee's contempt vote went straight down party lines, with 23 Republicans supporting the measure and 17 Democrats, including Tierney, opposed.
Richard Tisei, Tierney's Republican opponent in the 6th District congressional race, criticized the Democrat for his vote and accused him of being the one playing politics. The district includes all of Cape Ann, in addition to a number of other North Shore communities.
"This is what's wrong with Washington," Tisei said. "John Tierney, like too many members of both parties, uses serious legal issues for partisan political gain.
"These are not laughing matters, particularly when a federal agent died as a result of this blunder," Tisei added. "If it were George Bush's DOJ (Department of Justice) stonewalling, I would demand accountability. I would also demand it today. John Tierney very clearly only demands it when his party isn't involved. That is disingenuous and very clearly wrong."
The Justice Department has turned over about 7,600 documents related to the Fast and Furious program, but withheld several thousand others. According to media reports, in a meeting between Holder and committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., Holder offered to turn over many of the documents the committee sought. However, Issa said Holder put unreasonable conditions on his offer.
Minutes before last Wednesday's hearing, members received a letter from the Justice Department alerting them that President Obama was invoking executive privilege to keep the documents private. Issa, however, said the new information wasn't enough to postpone a contempt-of-Congress vote.
Tierney alleges that Issa changed the nature and scope of the document request and didn't give the Justice Department proper time to respond or fulfill the new document request before going forward with the contempt vote.
"If you watched the hearing ..., Democrat after Democrat said of course we want the documents," Tierney said. "But when you go to the attorney general at five o'clock in the afternoon and say, 'OK, give them to me now' — and these are partially new requests — he needs time to put his staff on it and come back."
Tisei, meanwhile, cited a 1998 hearing on George H.W. Bush's executive order that limited access to documents and certain records of former presidents as an example of Tierney's double standard. During that hearing, Tierney blasted the Bush administration about its proclivity to withhold documents "useful for the democratic process."
"Tierney clearly employed political theater against the previous administration but decried it in the current situation with DOJ," Tisei said.
Tierney said that comparison is ridiculous.
"Richard Tisei has no clue what he's talking about, doesn't remotely know either situation," Tierney said. "In all instances, when the president isn't entitled to executive privilege, the Congress should get the documents. Accommodations need to be made, but I have always been insistent that the documents should be produced.
"I disagree with him on how to get to the bottom of the mistruths that have come from DOJ in this horrible situation," Tisei said. "Coverups are unnecessary and unbecoming in this day and age. They're also wrong."
Jesse Roman may be contacted at email@example.com.