Oversight panel sues Barr, Ross over census subpoenas

Committee probe into failed effort to add citizenship question continues

The House Oversight Committee is seeking to force Attorney General William Barr to comply with subpoena issued as part of its investigation over the failed effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House Oversight and Reform Committee has picked a court fight with the Trump administration, filing a lawsuit Tuesday to enforce subpoenas for documents sought in the panel’s investigation of the failed effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

In the suit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, the panel asks that Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross be ordered to comply with subpoenas issued as part of its investigation. The committee argues it needs the information to make sure the administration has not undermined the decennial count used to apportion federal representation and more than $1.5 trillion in annual federal spending.

Although President Donald Trump eventually gave up on adding the citizenship question, the committee continued the probe into the issue. The House in July voted to hold Ross and Barr in contempt for defying the subpoenas, and the Oversight Committee has since said the administration is hiding behind executive privilege to keep from disclosing documents about the “false and misleading” efforts to add the question.

“Executive Privilege cannot shield documents and communications that reveal how and why the Commerce Department made numerous false and misleading statements to the public, Congress, and the courts about the genesis of the citizenship question,” the lawsuit said.

The administration previously made a “protective assertion of executive privilege” over all documents related to the probe in response to the subpoenas.

The Commerce Department pushed back Tuesday on the allegations laid out in the lawsuit. It said in a statement that Commerce officials have provided more than 2,000 documents to the committee since January and that Ross and other officials testified in March for hours in front of the panel.

“This lawsuit, fueled by overzealous Oversight Democrats, lacks merit,” it said.

The Supreme Court blocked the citizenship question in June, calling the Trump administration’s Voting Rights Act enforcement rationale for adding the question “pretext.” But the committee continued its probe into the process after the ruling.

[Census falling further behind in hiring outreach staff]

Oversight panel leaders allege that Republican redistricting strategist Thomas Hofeller inspired the pursuit of the question. Committee Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney of New York and other Democrats argue that Hofeller helped draft an initial Justice Department letter requesting the question’s addition as part of a series of administrative actions orchestrated by Ross.

Since the protective assertion by the White House in May, the committee said it has failed to obtain any additional information, prompting the need for the lawsuit.

Maloney said earlier this month that the panel may look at reining in the Commerce Department’s administration of the census or emergency legislation to prop up the 2020 count.

[Democrats pick Maloney to succeed Cummings as Oversight Committee leader]

“Without the information, the Committee cannot fulfill its constitutional duties to oversee DOJ and the Commerce Department and to remedy through legislation any defects in the administration of the Census — tasks that are at the foundation of American democracy,” according to the panel’s filing.

In response to previous lawsuits from the House, the DOJ and Trump lawyers have argued that there is no “legitimate legislative purpose” for subpoenas seeking documents like the president’s business records or testimony of his former White House counsel, Don McGahn.

However, a federal judge on Monday ordered McGahn to testify in the House Judiciary probe, but that order has been stayed pending an appeal.

Questions of honesty

The committee lawsuit argues that Congress has a right to get to the bottom of “bad faith and outright dishonesty” involved in the citizenship question process.

Litigants and other members of Congress have pointed out potential problems in the Justice Department’s advocacy for the citizenship question. In a letter sent Monday to the department, Democratic Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont called into question the honesty of former DOJ lawyer John Gore.

Gore, who has since left the government, has been cited amid allegations that the DOJ failed to be forthcoming in its conduct of the citizenship question case.

Litigants in a separate New York federal case that helped stop the question’s addition still have an active sanctions motion against the government tied to its conduct in the issue. They argue new information uncovered by the committee “makes clear that sanctions are not only justified, they are imperative.”

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