An incident at a public hearing in New Iberia, La., last June in which a Department of Justice lawyer clashed with a local reporter continues to trouble Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who complained to the DOJ Friday that its stance could “strike at the very heart of a free press.”
In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Grassley said he is bothered not only by the incident on June 12 but by Acting Assistant Attorney General Judith Appelbaum’s response, which the senator said was unsatisfactory in that it ignored the “vast majority” of his questions about the incident and, indeed, raised some new ones. Now, the senator said he wants answers within a week.
As reported by Main Justice earlier, a local reporter, Matthew Beaton, was at a hearing about hiring and promotion practices in the New Iberia fire department when Rachel Hranitzky, a senior attorney in the Civil Rights Division, told him that Justice Department rules prohibited him from quoting or recording her, and that he dare not get on “the bad side” of the DOJ by trying to defy those rules. If he didn’t agree to those restrictions, Hranitzky told Beaton, he might be asked to leave.
Since the session had been advertised as a “public hearing,” open not just to reporters but to the general public, Hranitzky’s stance struck some journalists as odd indeed. As Main Justice noted in an earlier report, DOJ spokeswoman Nanda Chitre previously said that Hranitzky did not attempt to eject the reporter or alter his story. “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,” Chitre said.
“I’m very concerned about what allegedly occurred in New Iberia,” Grassley wrote. “If the news reports are accurate, the conduct by the Justice Department would strike at the very heart of a free press. The department’s failure to answer questions and to produce relevant documents is unacceptable on a subject so fundamental to this country’s founding.”
Grassley said he wants to know what “new steps” have been taken to ensure that Civil Rights Division lawyers know that public hearings are indeed that, as Appelbaum mentioned in her letter. The incident has drawn a protest from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.