WASHINGTON - House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked the Justice Department yesterday to open a grand jury investigation into whether President Bush's chief of staff and former counsel should be prosecuted for contempt of Congress.
Pelosi, a California Democrat, demanded that the department pursue misdemeanor charges against former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers for refusing to testify before Congress about the firings of federal prosecutors in 2006 and against chief of staff Joshua Bolten for not turning over White House documents related to the dismissals.
She gave Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey one week to respond and said refusal to take the matter to a grand jury would result in the House filing a civil lawsuit against the Bush administration.
Pelosi sent an additional letter to US Attorney Jeff Taylor, the chief federal prosecutor for the District of Columbia, whose office would oversee the grand jury. The letters point to sections of federal law that require the Justice Department to bring the House contempt citations before a grand jury to investigate.
The Justice Department said it had received Pelosi's request and anticipated providing further guidance after Mukasey's review. It noted "longstanding department precedent" in such cases against letting a US attorney refer a congressional contempt citation to a grand jury or prosecute the executive branch.
The White House branded the request "truly contemptible." The top House Republican called it "a partisan political stunt" and "a complete waste of time," according to a spokesman.
The House voted two weeks ago to hold Bolten and Miers in contempt for not cooperating with committee investigations.
"There is no authority by which persons may wholly ignore a subpoena and fail to appear as directed because a president unilaterally instructs them to do so," Pelosi wrote Mukasey. She noted that Congress subpoenaed Miers to appear before the House Judiciary Committee, which is investigating the firings. "Surely, your department would not tolerate that type of action if the witness were subpoenaed to a federal grand jury," Pelosi wrote.
She added: "Short of a formal assertion of executive privilege, which cannot be made in this case, there is no authority that permits a president to advise anyone to ignore a duly issued congressional subpoena for documents."
At the White House, spokesman Tony Fratto said House Democrats "have been trying to redefine the notion of contempt and they succeeded."
Both Fratto and House GOP leader John Boehner said the House should focus on passing legislation allowing the government to more easily eavesdrop on phone calls and e-mails of suspected terrorists.
"Rather than passing critical national security legislation, they continue to squander time on partisan high jinks," Fratto said. Michael Steel, Boehner spokesman, said "this sort of pandering to the left-wing fever swamps of loony liberal activists does nothing to make America safer."
The Justice Department historically has resisted directing its prosecutors to enforce congressional subpoenas against White House officials. Fratto referred questions to the department and noted the agency "has longstanding views on this question, which they have repeated recently."
The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Representative John Conyers, said he hoped Pelosi's demand would spur the department to "put the partisan manipulation of our system of justice behind it" and take the issue to a grand jury. "To do otherwise would turn on its head the notion that we are all equally accountable under the law," said Conyers, a Michigan Democrat.
The letter was the latest chapter in a yearlong saga that began with the firings of nine federal prosecutors and led to Alberto R. Gonzales's resignation as attorney general in August.
The House voted 223 to 32 this month to hold Miers and Bolten in contempt for not cooperating with an inquiry into whether the prosecutors' firings were politically motivated. Republicans boycotted the vote and staged a walkout.