Contempt of Congress

June 6, 2012

Operation Fast and Furious, the Department of Justice’s controversial program of distributing firearms to Mexican gangs in an attempt to track gang activity, is regarded by boondoggle-lovers as the gift that keeps on giving.  Fast and Furious has been the target of ongoing inquiries from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.  Congressman Darrell Issa has been exploring options for holding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt for failing to turn over certain records related to the Operation, while Holder claims executive privilege.

A few weeks ago, members of a different government agency claimed a different type of privilege in front of the same committee.  Jeff Neely, a (former) top official at the General Services Administration, invoked his 5th Amendment privilege against self-incrimination when questioned by the Oversight and Government Reform Committee regarding a conference the GSA had planned to hold in Las Vegas.

At the time, a friend of mine asked if people are really allowed to do this: invoke the 5th amendment privilege against self-incrimination when they aren’t under indictment, and when it’s not even clear that their answers could incriminate them (planning a too-expensive Vegas conference may not be a good idea, but it probably doesn’t constitute criminal activity).  Technically, a person can say “I’m invoking my 5th amendment right to remain silent” any time they want.  One’s ability to invoke does not appear to be restricted to judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings.   However, if a person has no basis for claiming the privilege, a citation for contempt may result.  For an example, see Baker v. Limber, 647 F.2d 912.

Baker involved a person being found in Contempt of Court.  Technically, Contempt of Congress is a separate animal (administered by a different branch of government); but there have been numerous cases on it over the years.


Research References

For more on contempt of Congress, see 91 C.J.S. United States § 41, citing 2 U.S.C.A. § 192. Or, try searching for “contempt of congress” in the Law reviews and Journals page on WestlawNext.

For coverage of Congressman Issa and the potential contempt charge against Eric Holder, try the following search:  DARRELL /3 ISSA & CONTEMPT & FAST /2 FURIOUS & DA(LAST 30 DAYS) in ALLNEWS.

Similar news coverage of the GSA hearings can be found with this search, in the same ALLNEWS database: gsa /p vegas /p 5th /3 amendment.