WASHINGTON House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked the Justice Department on Thursday to open a grand jury investigation into whether President Bush's chief of staff and former counsel should be prosecuted for contempt of Congress.
Pelosi, D-Calif., demanded that the department pursue misdemeanor charges against former White House counsel Harriet Miers for refusing to testify to Congress about the firings of federal prosecutors in 2006 and against chief of staff Josh Bolten for failing to turn over White House documents related to the dismissals.
She gave Attorney General Michael Mukasey one week to respond and said refusal to take the matter to a grand jury will result in the House's filing a civil lawsuit against the Bush administration.
The White House branded the request as "truly contemptible." The Justice Department said it had received Pelosi's request and anticipated providing further guidance after Mukasey's review. It noted "longstanding department precedent" in such cases against letting a U.S. attorney refer a congressional contempt citation to a grand jury or prosecute an executive branch. The top House Republican called it "a partisan political stunt" and "a complete waste of time," according to a spokesman.
The Democratic-controlled House voted two weeks ago to hold Bolten and Miers in contempt for failing to cooperate with committee investigations.
"There is no authority by which persons may wholly ignore a subpoena and fail to appear as directed because a president unilaterally instructs them to do so," Pelosi wrote Mukasey. She noted that Congress subpoenaed Miers to appear before the House Judiciary Committee, which is investigating the firings.
"Surely, your department would not tolerate that type of action if the witness were subpoenaed to a federal grand jury," Pelosi wrote.
She added: "Short of a formal assertion of executive privilege, which cannot be made in this case, there is no authority that permits a president to advise anyone to ignore a duly issued congressional subpoena for documents."
Pelosi sent an additional letter to U.S. Attorney Jeff Taylor, the chief federal prosecutor for the District of Columbia, whose office would oversee the grand jury. The letters point to sections of federal law that require the Justice Department to bring the House contempt citations before a grand jury to investigate.
At the White House, spokesman Tony Fratto said House Democrats "have been trying to redefine the notion of contempt and they succeeded."
Both Fratto and House GOP leader John Boehner said the House should focus on passing legislation allowing the government to more easily eavesdrop on phone calls and e-mails of suspected terrorists.
"Rather than passing critical national security legislation, they continue to squander time on partisan hijinx," Fratto said. Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said "this sort of pandering to the left-wing fever swamps of loony liberal activists does nothing to make America safer."
The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. John Conyers, said he hoped Pelosi's demand would spur the department to "put the partisan manipulation of our system of justice behind it" and take the issue to a grand jury. "To do otherwise would turn on its head the notion that we are all equally accountable under the law," said Conyers, D-Mich.
But the department told the House leadership last July that it generally would not let a U.S. attorney make a grand jury referral or prosecute executive branch officials when they followed a president's instruction and invoked a claim of executive privilege before a congressional committee, spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said.
The letter was the latest chapter in a yearlong saga that began with the firings of nine federal prosecutors and led to Alberto Gonzales' resignation as attorney general last August.
The House voted 223-32 this month to hold Miers and Bolten in contempt for failing to cooperate with an inquiry into whether the prosecutors' firings were politically motivated. Angry Republicans boycotted the vote and staged a walkout in an unusually bitter scene even for the fractious House.
At the time, the Bush administration was no less harsh, saying the information sought by the House was off-limits under executive privilege and that Bolten and Miers were immune from prosecution.
It was the first time in 25 years that a full chamber of Congress voted on a contempt of Congress citation. The White House pointed out that it was the first time that such action had been taken against top White House officials who had been instructed by the president to remain silent to preserve executive privilege.