House to vote on criminal contempt against Attorney General, Commerce Secretary over census

Image: President Trump Holds News Conference In Rose Garden On Census And C
President Donald Trump, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and Attorney General William Barr walk into the Rose Garden to make a statement on the upcoming 2020 census on July 11, 2019. Copyright Mark Wilson Getty Images
By Dareh Gregorian and Alex Moe with NBC News Politics
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Wilbur Ross derided the effort as nothing but "political theater" and "silly."


The House will vote on Wednesday to hold U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in criminal contempt of Congress for withholding information about the administration's failed bid to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

The House scheduled the vote after Barr and Ross withheld documentsthat had been subpoenaed by the Oversight and Reform Committee as part of its probe into origins of the now-scuttled citizenship question.

Ross had testified before Congress that he added the question "solely" because of a request from the Department of Justice, but it later emerged he'd asked DOJ to make the request, and that he and administration officials had been discussing adding the question for months.

The administration had argued publicly and in court that the question was aimed at helping enforce the Voting Rights Act, but the contempt resolution notes the idea had initially been promoted by a now-deceased Republican gerrymandering expert, Thomas Hofeller. Hofeller "wrote a secret study concluding that counting voting-age citizens, rather than total population, in legislative district 'would be advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites,'" the resolution says.

Barr and Ross maintain they've tried to comply with Oversight's investigation, but the resolution charges the pair have obstructed it by failing to turn over key documents. Barr also blocked a DOJ employee from answering 150 questions about the process.

If the resolution passes the Democrat-controlled House as expected, it would be just the second time in American history that an Attorney General had been found in criminal contempt — and the second time in seven years. In 2012, the Republican-controlled House found then-Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt for failing to turn over subpoenaed documents.

It would be the first time a Commerce Secretary had been found in contempt.

If the resolution passes, it would then be sent to the U.S. Attorney's office in Washington, D.C., for further action. While the finding can carry stiff penalties — up to a year behind bars and a $100,000 fine — it's unlikely the U.S. Attorney's office will rush to take action. It's overseen by Barr.

The Obama Justice Department declined to pursue a criminal charge against Holder, and the contempt case against him wound up slogging through the court system for years. It quietly settled earlier this year.

Ross dismissed the impending vote in an interview with Fox Business News on Wednesday morning.

"Oh, this is just more political theater. It doesn't really have any substantive basis," Ross said.

"We produced to the committee over 14,000 pages of documents. What's at issue here is about a dozen documents, roughly 15 pages, all of which the courts didn't find necessary to make their conclusion. So this is silly."

He also insisted that "We are not stonewalling. But we are also not yielding on the very, very important matter of executive privilege. These are privileged documents."

Barr and Ross announced last week they weredropping their bid to add the citizenship question in the wake of a Supreme Court decision last month that their justification for the question was "contrived."

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