House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., has issued subpoenas seeking testimony from two Department of Homeland Security employees about their handling of Freedom of Information Act requests.
The move represents the first two subpoenas sent to the Obama administration by the Republican-led House.
“Chairman Issa issued the subpoenas for depositions so that the investigation could continue moving forward and we are expecting DHS to fully cooperate with the committee,” Kurt Bardella, a spokesman for Issa, confirmed in a statement today.
In response, House Oversight ranking member Elijah Cummings, D-Md., has written to Issa complaining that these two subpoenas—and another issued last week for Countrywide mortgage documents relating to members of Congress—were done without consulting fellow committee members. Issa has said he is not targeting members in the Countrywide actions.
In his letter today to Issa, Cummings notes that the two DHS employees are being subpoenaed to testify at depositions on March 7 and 8 about the department’s FOIA policies and practices.
Issa had issued a directive in January for 180 agencies to turn over all logs of FOIA requests filed with them in the last five years by February 15.
He wrote then that his committee was "interested in ensuring that all federal agencies respond in a timely, substantive, and nondiscriminatory manner.” Information sought under the directive would include names of those requesting information through FOIA, the date of the request, and brief descriptions of the documents sought.
Issa also said the committee is often assisted by tips, complaints, and briefings from media organizations, watchdog groups, and concerned citizens, which he said are “often the first to become aware of federal inefficiency or malfeasance. FOIA allows them to scrutinize the activities of federal agencies.”
The particular focus on DHS heightened after a career official within the department allegedly provided the committee with evidence that called into question the veracity of statements by DHS officials to the committee after news reports revealed potential political interference in the FOIA process.
According to a statement today from Cummings, Issa had been considering a subpoena for documents he requested from DHS in two letters in January and February, but he had appeared to abandon that plan last Friday afternoon after meeting with Cummings and speaking directly with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
Then, Cummings said, Issa suddenly reversed course and directed DHS to suspend document production late Friday night. By Tuesday, he had e-mailed subpoenas to the department to compel the testimony of their employees.
“I was dismayed to learn that you had signed both of these deposition subpoenas on Thursday, February 17—the day before our meeting and before your call with DHS Secretary Napolitano,” Cummings wrote to Issa today.
Other House officials say the instructions for committee staffers to serve the subpoenas came on Tuesday after DHS had scuttled the idea of transcribed interviews of the two employees. They say Cummings was notified that same day.
Cummings, however, wrote: “Your actions create the impression that your decision had already been made.” He urged Issa to work with him “to ensure that the committee exercises its subpoena authority responsibly.”
Democrats had already been objecting to the FOIA inquiries.
Cummings, along with Reps. Peter Welch, D-Vt., and Gerry Connolly, D-Va., had sent a previous letter to Issa last month, warning that the inquiry into how federal officials are handling FOIA requests could overburden agencies.
And Welch later sent his own letter, asking Issa what business the committee has obtaining the identity of U.S. citizens “exercising their statutory rights?”
Added Welch: “To paraphrase the Viper car alarm, Mr. Chairman, please step away from the lawful use of the Freedom of Information Act." Issa founded auto accessories manufacturer Directed Electronics, and famously recorded the phrase for his company's Viper car alarm.