Tony West, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Civil Division, fielded pointed questions from several Republicans on the department’s objectivity and transparency at a House oversight hearing Thursday.
Speaking before the House Judiciary subcommittee on commercial and administrative law, West sought to highlight the Civil Division’s recent efforts to combat mortgage and Medicare fraud and deal with habeas corpus petitions from Guantanamo Bay detainees. Instead, two Republican members quizzed him on the department’s handling of lawsuits against the recently enacted health care law and potential litigation over Arizona’s controversial immigration law.
In his testimony, West described increased enforcement efforts to combat mortgage fraud and a steep increase in recoveries from mortgage fraud cases — $52 million in 2009 compared to only $15 million the previous year.
In particular, he cited the recently publicized “Operation Stolen Dreams,” a record-breaking enforcement action responsible for nearly 500 arrests, about 300 convictions and about $11 million in recoveries.
“Mortgage fraud is one of the most difficult challenge the country faces,” said West.
West also highlighted the recently created Health Care Fraud Prevention and Enforcement Action Team (HEAT), a collaboration between the Departments of Justice and Heath and Human Services that has recovered more than $3 billion in health care funds lost to fraud since January 2009, he said.
However, several Republicans focused instead on more elusive — and controversial — matters within the department.
Steve King (R-Iowa) expressed concern over the Civil Division’s role in defending the recently enacted health care law in multiple lawsuits. He questioned the use of the Commerce Clause in the pending litigation.
“If you prevail on the Commerce Clause, there will be nothing left [of it],” he said.
King and Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) also asked West to address the department’s actions on Arizona’s immigration law, SB 1070. King cited several news reports that reported a “draft civil complaint” against the law is circulating within the department and questioned a statement by Attorney General Eric Holder that the department was not politicizing the issue.
“It’s been discussed as far up as the Secretary of State,” King said. “It’s hard to accept that statement when there is a suit being brought against a state … which has a law that mirrors the federal law … [and] a decision could be made in the White House, directed to the Attorney General and acted upon by the department. I think we need to re-blindfold Lady Justice.”
King’s aide also handed West a letter mirroring one sent to Holder on May 28 requesting a copy of the draft civil complaint. King said he never received the draft.
West responded by saying he had no knowledge of the news reports on a draft civil complaint and defended the Attorney General’s statements.
“I know that [Holder] is committed in an unwavering way to a nonpartisan, non-politicized Department of Justice that acts to do what is in the best interest of the United States and the American people,” he said. “The Department of Justice is … one of the few places in this country where you can go and your overriding charge is to do not what is partisan or political but to do what is right.”
West’s full written testimony and a copy of the letter from Rep. King are embedded below.
West Testimony House Judiciary 6 24 2010