Bannon’s indictment challenges history of congressional authority in contempt
Washington — Steve Bannon’s contempt of Congress indictment is the country’s first since 1983, and his appearance in federal court on Monday offers a rare glimpse into one of US lawmakers’ most chaotic and least used powers.
The last successful trial goes back to Watergate and its aftermath when J. Gordon Lady and Richard Kleindienst were convicted and pleaded guilty, respectively, for refusing to answer questions from Congress.
Bannon is facing federal charges for refusing a House subpoena to tell Congress what it knew about the lead-up to the Jan. 6 Capitol attack to boycott Democrat Joe Biden’s election victory over President Donald Trump.
The last indictment three decades ago was less historic: a federal environmental official under President Ronald Reagan failed to respond to a House subpoena. The official, Rita M. Lavell, who once headed the Super Fund, would be acquitted of contempt, but later convicted of lying to Congress. She was sentenced to six months in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Defendant LaVelle was a member of the Republican administration, while the House of Representatives was in control of the Democrats. The Justice Department has been wary of prosecuting such cases when the White House and the House of Representatives are under the control of opposing political parties.
said Stan Brand, who served as a former House counsel when lawmakers referred the then-head of the Environmental Protection Agency to the US Department of Justice on criminal charges.
Prior to this case, the majority of congressional contempt cases were related to the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was formed in 1938 to investigate individuals and organizations for subversive activities, particularly those related to the Communist Party.
A number of contempt cases were eventually dismissed from HUAC due to procedural failures. But the widely publicized hearings beginning in 1947 that focused on the film industry led to prison sentences for several screenwriters and directors, the so-called Hollywood Ten. They refused to answer questions about their political activities or identify like-minded colleagues and were imprisoned for up to a year in addition to being blacklisted by the industry.
At present, Democrats control the White House and the White House as lawmakers investigate the worst attack on the US Capitol in two centuries, which occurred as Republican Trump in the White House called for protests.
But even with the current unique circumstances, the prosecution of these charges relies on a law that has not produced a conviction in decades and can take years to litigation.
“Historically, if you look at the record of these kinds of cases in the 1950s, 1960s and into the late 1940s, a lot of them were dismissed by the courts due to technical shortcomings,” Brand said.
“It’s not that these cases are complicated, but that they are difficult cases to investigate,” he added.
When Brand was a House counsel in 1982, a subcommittee of then-EPA chief Ann Gorsuch Burford, mother of current Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, convened in contempt for her refusal, at the direction of then-President Reagan, to hand over documents subpoenaed about the efforts Her agency to enforce a law requiring the cleaning of hazardous waste dumps. The Justice Department refused to pursue the charges and filed a lawsuit to prevent further action on the contempt referral.
The Obama administration declined to prosecute then-Attorney General Eric Holder and former IRS official Louis Lerner after referrals of contempt from the Republican-led House of Representatives. The Department of Justice under George W. Bush refused to indict Harriet Myers after the former White House attorney defied a subpoena in a Democratic investigation into the mass firings of US attorneys general.
In all, the House of Representatives has brought five criminal contempt cases and three civil contempt cases against executive branch officials since 2008. In each case of criminal contempt, the executive has refused to forward the charges to a grand jury.
The hurdles to previous commissions, Brand said, is that the Department of Justice has historically not prosecuted the executives the president has ordered to lift executive privilege.
That’s not necessarily the case with Bannon, he said, where courts have to determine the limits of executive privilege and whether implied presidential power protects the ability of former White House aides and the president’s outside allies.
Bannon, 67, was indicted Friday on two counts of criminal contempt — one for refusing to appear before Congress and one for refusing to submit documents in response to a subpoena from the committee.
The indictment came before a second awaiting witness, as Mark Meadows, the former White House chief of staff, defied his subpoena from the committee on Friday, and as Trump escalated his legal battles to withhold documents and testimony about the insurgency.
Bannon did not petition during Monday’s hearing and was released without bail. He is due to return to court on Thursday.
Associated Press writers Marie Claire Galonic, Michael Balsamo, and Eric Tucker contributed to this report.
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