By MELISSA B. ROBINSON
WASHINGTON (AP) Lawmakers challenged the Bush administration's refusal to share
documents in a wide range of cases Wednesday, from the FBI's handling of Boston mob
informants in the 1960s to the Justice Department's failure to notify an Associated Press
reporter before subpoenaing his home telephone records.
"When I get a majority in the House, I'm going to take you guys to court" to
get the Boston records, Government Reform Committee Chairman Dan Burton, R-Ind., told
Daniel J. Bryant, an assistant attorney general testifying before the committee.
"You're going to give me those documents," Burton said. It would take a vote
by the full House, controlled by Republicans, to find President Bush in contempt to start
a court battle.
Should Burton move for such a finding, "You have the votes," Rep. William
Delahunt, D-Mass., a Judiciary Committee member, told him during the hearing.
Burton has focused on revelations that Joseph Salvati of Boston spent 30 years in
prison for a murder he did not commit even though the FBI had evidence of his innocence.
Other lawmakers said the withholding of documents in that case points to a larger pattern
of administration secrecy.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, testified that Justice officials won't answer whether
they broke their own rules in subpoenaing the home telephone records of AP reporter John
Solomon. They first said the case was ongoing, and later cited privacy and grand jury
secrecy rules, Grassley said.
"The department has responded with a shell game," Grassley said. "It is
inconceivable to me that the law is such that Congress cannot look at the record to
determine whether the Justice Department did or did not follow its own guidelines
regarding the subpoena of a reporter's phone records."
Solomon disclosed in a May 4 story that an FBI wiretap in an organized crime
investigation had intercepted a conversation in which Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J.,
discussed campaign donations. After the AP story ran, the Justice Department began a
criminal investigation to find out who leaked the information about the wiretap.
Federal prosecutors notified Solomon in an Aug. 20 letter that his phone records had
been subpoenaed for the period May 2 to May 7. Grassley asked Justice last fall to
identify who decided on the three-month delay in notifying Solomon.
Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the committee's top Democrat, cited the
administration's refusal to release energy policy task force records, adjusted data from
the 2000 Census and 60,000 pages of records from the Reagan administration. An executive
order issued Nov. 1 by President Bush curtailed access to presidential records.
Burton is trying to build a case that previous administrations have regularly turned
over the kinds of prosecutorial documents that Bush ordered Attorney General John Ashcroft
to withhold from the committee in December, citing executive privilege.
He has compiled a list of instances where Congress has gotten such records dating back
to the 1920s.
"If we can't see the Boston documents, then isn't it fair for us to conclude ...
(Congress) will never get deliberative documents from the Justice Department?
Unfortunately, I'm beginning to come to that conclusion," he said.
Executive privilege is a doctrine recognized by the courts that ensures presidents can
get candid advice in private without fear it will become public.
The Constitution doesn't mention it; its meaning has been defined over the years by
presidents, judges and government policies. Since George Washington, presidents have used
a form of privilege to keep information from Congress or the courts.
Bush argued that releasing records could have a chilling effect on prosecutors'
willingness to give candid advice about criminal matters.
If the Bush administration wins a precedent for secrecy, Congress' authority to oversee
future administrations will be severely weakened, Burton said. In the Boston matter, there
may be more innocent people still in jail because of "rogue FBI agents," he
Salvati's conviction was overturned after a judge concluded that FBI agents hid
testimony that would have cleared Salvati because they wanted to protect an informant.
Salvati had been paroled in 1997.
Bryant, who spoke only to the Boston case, said Justice officials are willing to meet with lawmakers to evaluate records individually. But he would not promise access to documents.
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