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Hearings of the
Subcommittee on Rules & Organization of the House

Cooperation, Comity, and Confrontation: Congressional Oversight of the Executive Branch

Statement of Hon. Pete Hoekstra (R-MI)
Chairman -- Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations
Committee on Education and the Workforce

Thank you Chairman Linder and my fellow colleagues on the Rules Committee for inviting me to testify about some of my experiences with congressional oversight. I applaud the efforts that the Rules Committee is taking to review how oversight is currently being conducted, and to explore improved methods and rules that may help us to do our jobs better. Congress’ oversight role is increasingly important with the lapse of the independent counsel statute, and we, as a Congress, must work together in a bipartisan fashion to ensure that programs and agencies run by our government are properly monitored, and that abuses are detected and remedied.

I have been chairman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the Education and Workforce Committee since January 1995. During a good portion of the 105th Congress, the Subcommittee conducted an investigation of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) that was triggered by widespread fraud in the union’s 1996 election – an election funded by $20 million of taxpayer funds. In August 1997, a court-appointed Election Officer overturned the results of the election and ordered a rerun. She found that the campaign of incumbent Teamster president Ron Carey engaged in a “complex network of schemes” to launder union treasury funds, and other prohibited contributions, through various organizations back into the Carey Campaign. Participants in these schemes allegedly involved Citizen Action, the National Counsel for Senior Citizens, Project Vote, the AFL-CIO, the DNC, and the Clinton-Gore ’96 Campaign.

The Subcommittee’s investigation of these matters was substantially limited based on several factors. From the outset, the Subcommittee’s minority did not support the majority’s efforts and did not attempt to participate in a meaningful debate about how to make the Teamsters Union more accountable to the membership. Instead, the minority focused on procedural issues and personal attacks in an effort to change the subject. For an investigation to be truly effective and credible there must be cooperation on both sides of the aisle.

Our investigation was also limited because several important witnesses asserted their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and refused to testify. In addition, the Teamsters took a confrontational position and were generally uncooperative. Their lawyers asserted numerous privileges and withheld many documents until threatened with contempt. They produced others “redacted” of any but the most meaningless information.

The Teamsters also refused to allow interviews of their employees and agents. Ultimately, our investigation was granted deposition authority and we were able to speak with uncooperative witnesses. However, it required a long and complicated process culminating with a vote on the House floor to get this power. The Teamsters knew we were powerless and were able to delay our investigation for many critical months. As soon as we were provided with this necessary tool, the Teamsters were suddenly cooperative and insisted that their appearances be voluntary without subpoena. This is why deposition authority is so important and I would encourage the Rules Committee to give this power to investigative committees on a permanent basis.

The Subcommittee’s efforts to investigate the Teamsters election misconduct were also limited in deference to requests made by the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York. On numerous occasions, the Subcommittee refrained from questioning witnesses and pursuing certain areas of inquiry at the request of the Southern District. The Southern District did not want their criminal investigation to be tainted and the Subcommittee respected their wishes. In practical terms, the Department of Justice (DoJ) objected to the Subcommittee pursuing any investigation of the alleged contribution swap schemes.

My experience in working with the Department of Justice is that it is a one-way street when it comes to interacting with congressional investigations. We share information with them; they shroud everything in a veil of secrecy. Either their information involves restricted grand jury material or it involves an open criminal matter. DoJ seems to overplay what information involves an “open case” and apparently will not provide Congress with any information on any issue that they might investigate somewhere down the line.

I recognize that there are legitimate law enforcement concerns, but there appears to be no standard as to what information can and can’t be shared with Congress, and when a congressional investigation will interfere with a criminal investigation. The Department of Justice needs to do a better job articulating exactly how and why certain specific actions by a congressional committee will interfere with a criminal investigation. There needs to be equal recognition by DoJ that Congress has a legitimate constitutional oversight authority as well.

In the case of the Teamsters election, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York received guilty pleas from three campaign consultants in September 1997. Since then, the criminal investigation has managed only two guilty pleas from minor players in the illegal contribution schemes, and the indictment of the Teamsters’ former political affairs director, Bill Hamilton, in April 1998. Mr. Hamilton has yet to go to trial. Despite five supposedly cooperating witnesses, it appears thus far that high-ranking union officials, third party political organizations, and officials at the DNC, who federal monitors found were involved in the illegal activities, have escaped serious scrutiny by the Department of Justice.

That is just my opinion based on what I know. Admittedly, that isn’t very much because DoJ will not share information with us. This is frustrating because the Subcommittee refrained from investigating these matters and has not witnessed much progress from the Southern District’s criminal investigation.

I believe that DoJ and Congress can and must work together. There needs to be some sort of mechanism in place to share information, so that Congress can make a proper determination whether law enforcement needs outweigh the needs of Congress to conduct oversight. Right now there are no standards and there is no structure in place. When I attempted to personally elicit information about the progress of the criminal investigation from Mary Jo White, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, I was told that she could not discuss matters related to the criminal investigation because it was an “ongoing matter.” This was in a closed door, off-the-record, private meeting. If Congress refrains from investigating these matters and DoJ does not give us any indication about what they are doing, how can we conduct meaningful oversight?

An additional example of the secretive posture taken by DoJ is Mary Jo White’s refusal to testify before the Subcommittee about the Teamsters Union when invited to do so in May of this year. With the completion of a successful rerun election at the IBT, the Subcommittee was interested to learn about the future of government supervision of the union under the 1989 Consent Decree and wanted to hear DoJ’s perspective. We were not planning to question her about the criminal investigation. Nevertheless, the Department declined to send Ms. White or any other witness stating that any such testimony would involve discussion of the Consent Decree, which also is considered an open case.

This stance directly conflicts with the one taken by the previous administration. For example, in 1989, Benito Romano, then U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, appeared before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Mr. Romano testified in-depth about the lawsuit against the Teamsters Union and examined, in detail, the terms of the Consent Order. DoJ’s recent blanket refusal to provide a witness to testify about the future of government supervision of the Teamsters is typical of the lack of openness I have witnessed as Subcommittee chairman.

In conclusion, I would like to say that any improvements to congressional oversight that the Rules Committee can generate are very welcome. I would encourage you to take a serious look at the deposition authority issue. Another area for potential exploration is the contempt process. Currently the House and the Senate have different procedures for enforcing contempt. We should determine which is the most efficient and effective and establish some consistency.

I am hopeful that Congress and the Department of Justice can work together in a way that will not impede our mutually co-existing efforts. I don’t know what the solution is, but there has to be some information sharing mechanism so that Congress can make a truly informed determination when our oversight efforts are interfering with DoJ’s law enforcement duties. Right now, there is limited cooperation and information sharing is largely one way.

Thank you again for inviting me to appear.

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