Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) wrote Attorney General Eric Holder today to demand answers about a June 12 incident in Louisiana, in which a Civil Rights Division lawyer is described as having tried to intimidate a reporter into not quoting her statements in a public hearing.
As Main Justice reported on July 9, Rachel Hranitzky, a senior trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division, told local reporter Matthew Beaton that special Justice Department rules prohibited him from quoting or recording her at a public hearing held to address the hiring and promotion process at the New Iberia, La., Fire Department.
Hranitzky “grew belligerent and threatening” and said if Beaton did not follow her directive he would be asked to leave, his newspaper, the Daily Iberian reported. Hranitzky allegedly warned the reporter he would not want to get on “the bad side” of the Justice Department. The incident has drawn a protest from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
In his letter, Grassley said wants to know whether the department or the DOJ Inspector General is conducting an investigation. If the department is conducting its own investigation, Grassley wants to know who is conducting it, warning that if it’s being conducted by Civil Rights Division staff, there may be a conflict of interest.
He asked DOJ to explain whether it believes the meeting in New Iberia was subject to Louisiana’s open meetings law, and if not, why not. And he asked for any written policy or guidance the DOJ may have issued to its employees about interacting with the public – including the media – at public meetings, since the incident in New Iberia.
Grassley, who is the top-ranked Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, also asked Holder to identify docket numbers of cases that were the subject of the public hearing, identified by the DOJ as concerning a consent decree in a lawsuit, U.S. v. City of Alexandria, et al.
“[I]f the reports about the incident and the existence of a DOJ policy or DOJ ’special rules’ are accurate, it would amount to a raw abuse of power and a complete disregard for the First Amendment and state open meetings laws,” Grassley wrote Holder.
Justice Department spokeswoman Nanda Chitre previously said in a statement that Hranitzky did not attempt to eject the reporter or alter his story, adding: “As is our standard practice, attorneys speaking on behalf of the department at public meetings may at times refer reporters to the Department’s Office of Public Affairs for further information and additional statements.”
Grasley asked for an answer by Aug. 17. Click here to read the full text of the letter.