The Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy, ushered in the 112th Congress with high hopes outlining his committee’s agenda on Tuesday.
The Vermont Democrat spoke specifically on fighting fraud, promoting innovation and protecting national security and constitutional rights in the digital age.
Guests gathered at the Freedom Forum within the Newseum to hear Leahy emphasize the need for bipartisanship and the elimination of divisive rhetoric, especially after Saturday’s shootings involving Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was gravely wounded, and Federal Judge John Roll, who was killed.
With the Republicans in control of the House, Leahy said he is committed to working with the new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Lamar Smith of Texas, and the new ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Charles Grassley of Iowa.
Leahy recalled his work with Grassley in the previous Congress, citing The Leahy-Grassley Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act, the False Claims Act, the Affordable Care Act, and the Wall Street Reform Act, and he said he wants to build on that progress.
“The Obama administration is a real partner in our fraud-fighting efforts, and we want to make sure the newly enacted provisions are having the intended effect, as well as ensuring that adequate resources are devoted to our anti-fraud enforcement efforts,” Leahy said.
He said he intends to spotlight tax fraud in the first Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, on Jan. 26, and that panel members want to learn more about the annual fraud recovery of more than $3 billion of taxpayers’ dollars by the Justice Department.
Leahy praised Smith’s newly created intellectual property subcommittee as a unanimously supported bipartisan effort to stop online criminals. Another top priority is to modernize the patent system through the Patent Reform Act, he said.
“Our intellectual property-based businesses are among the most productive in our economy and among its best employers,” said Leahy.
Leahy said his committee has much to do. He emphasized the desire for more aggressive measures to protect competition to create jobs and businesses, revisiting the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act to further citizens’ privacy rights, and reintroducing the Faster Freedom of Information Act later on this year.
Noting that Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. recently wrote in his annual report on the urgent need to fill Federal judicial vacancies, Leahy once again lamented the destructive influence of partisanship, citing overburdened courts and crippling caseloads.
With vacancies in 85 district courts and 16 circuit courts, Leahy said he would do his best to get nominees confirmed. “We cannot ask people to take on public service as a judge, and then subject them to needless, unexplained, humiliating partisan delays in the confirmation process,” Leahy said.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will have a new top Republican in the 112th Congress.
Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) is slated to take over the ranking member post from Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), pending resolution of a fight over Senate filibuster rules that is holding up committee organizing for the new Congress.
Grassley is moving to Judiciary from a plum perch as ranking member of the tax-writing Finance Committee. A GOP rule limits Senate Republicans to no more than six years in top committee spots, and Grassley had reached his limit on Finance.
Grassley struck an agreement with Sessions in 2009 to take over the Judiciary job this year. The agreement became necessary when Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania switched from the Republican to the Democratic party in April 2009, suddenly opening up the ranking member spot.
Under the rules, Grassley - the most senior Republican on the Judiciary panel - would have had to claim the ranking membership right away to hold it for the full six-year limit; otherwise the position would go to Sessions.
But Grassley didn’t want to leave Finance in the middle of high-stakes negotiations over the health care bill, according to reports at the time. He worked out a deal whereby Sessions would voluntarily leave the Judiciary post for the 112th Congress. Sessions is now slated to become ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee.
Grassley has served 30 years on the Judiciary panel but never served before as its top Republican. On legal issues, he is perhaps best known as a champion of whistleblowers and the False Claims Act, the statute whereby private citizens can file lawsuits against companies that defraud the government.
More recently, Grassley was a proponent of a controversial whistleblower provision in the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory law that has caused anxiety among corporate counsel.
The original language of the provision gave the Securities and Exchange Commission discretion in how to reward whistleblowers who bring the agency tips that lead to successful cases. When the provision got to the Senate, it was strengthened to give successful tipsters up to 30 percent of any fine over $1 million.
Posted in News | Comments Off
The director of a new office devoted to improving government transparency said her staff is working closely with the Justice Department to educate federal employees about resolving disputes over Freedom of Information Act requests.
The Office of Government Information Services opened in September, with an office located at the National Archives and Records Administration building in College Park, Md. Its tasks are to mediate disputes between FOIA requesters and federal agencies, review policies and procedures of administrative agencies under FOIA, review agency compliance with FOIA and recommend policy changes to Congress and the president to improve the administration of FOIA.
Miriam M. Nisbet, director of the OGIS, told Main Justice that her office is already participating in training for DOJ employees related to FOIA requests. She says the office is working on ways to ensure that federal employees know about its existence.
“Our role is review of agency compliance, and as part of that role we will be and are working together with the Justice Department,” said Nisbet, who appeared at a panel discussion on the issue of transparency Wednesday morning at American University’s Washington College of Law marking the one year anniversary of the Obama administration.
Another panelist noted that it was essential that OGIS, the so-called “FOIA ombudsman,” is not in the Justice Department hierarchy.
“It’s important to have the OGIS outside of the Justice Department,” said Lydia Kay Griggsby, counsel to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Griggsby said that the system allows OGIS to serve in an oversight role. She also said despite lingering concerns about secrecy, it was important to acknowledge that the government is in a “very different place” than it was under the administration of George W. Bush.
But other panelists noted that they see problems with government transparency under the Obama administration, some from longstanding issues related to FOIA requests.
“FOIA requests are kind of a crapshoot,” said Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff. “There’s very little way of knowing how the process works.” He argued for the establishment of a FOIA requester advocate in federal offices, telling Nisbet that while OGIS was serving a role, “I don’t think you’re getting in the weeds at the level of individual FOIA requests.”
A new policy on FOIA requests was outlined in a March 19, 2009, memo authored by Attorney General Eric Holder. It directed government agencies to presume disclosure of information, and even begin to proactively post documents online. ”First, an agency should not withhold information simply because it may do so legally,” Holder wrote in his memo.
But the transparency presumption hasn’t quite taken root, Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli acknowledged in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last Semptember. The new FOIA policy has been “broadly implemented, but I’m hesitant to say fully implemented,” he said.
In a previous interview with Main Justice, Nisbet said the system “doesn’t work the way we want it to … It’s a pretty big architecture, and it’s not going to change over night. Do I believe [OGIS] will make a difference? Absolutely. But it’s not going to happen in a matter of months.”
Posted in News | Comments Off
Former Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), a 2008 Republican presidential candidate and fierce opponent of illegal immigration, is criticizing the nomination of Stephanie Villafuerte for District of Colorado U.S. Attorney.
President Barack Obama officially nominated Villafuerte (University of Denver, University of California at Los Angeles) on Sept. 30. The deputy chief of staff to Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D) would be the first Latina to serve as Colorado’s top federal prosecutor.
In a column on the conservative WorldNetDaily Web site, Tancredo cites a controversy from Ritter’s 2006 gubernatorial campaign against Republican Bob Beauprez that resulted in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent losing his job.
The agent, Cory Voorhis, was acquitted of charges he improperly accessed a federal crime database for information the Beauprez campaign used to make a campaign ad that attacked Ritter for reaching plea agreement with illegal immigrants when he was the Denver District Attorney. One of those undocumented immigrants was Carlos Estrada-Medina, an accused heroin dealer.
After the ad was released, Villafuerte called a staffer at the DA’s office and apparently asked about Estrada-Medina. The DA’s office also accessed the same information as Voorhis in the National Crime Information Computer database.
The DA’s office said that the check on Estrada-Medina was done in response to media calls. But records released by the DA’s office in response to a request by The Denver Post “show no such media deluge. Instead, they indicate that the DA office’s work on Estrada-Medina also had its roots in a campaign,” the newspaper reported in 2008.
Voorhis lost his job over the matter. Tancredo thinks there’s a double standard.
“As the U.S. attorney, will Stephanie Villafuerte offer help in investigating the corruption, perjury and malfeasance rampant in the Denver regional office of ICE?,” writes Tancredo. “Will she be an advocate for the effective enforcement of our nation’s immigration laws after participating in the disgusting vendetta against ICE agent Cory Voorhis? The answer to those questions is probably … no se puede,” wrote Tancredo.
WND is home to conservative conspiracy theories on everything from Obama’s citizenship to the belief that health care reform would lead to “concentration camps for political dissidents, such as occurred in Nazi Germany.” Recent headlines include “Will your thoughts be subject to hate crime laws?” and “How to survive the coming martial law in America.”
If confirmed, Villafuerte would replace Acting U.S. Attorney for Colorado David Gaouette, who has been in the position since Jan. 10 after Bush appointee Troy A. Eid resigned. Gaouette’s current 120-day extension expires on Dec. 8, at which point the U.S. District Court for Colorado would appoint a interim U.S. Attorney until a presidential nominee is sworn in.