Conyers admits Justice Dept. whistleblower website was 'premature' after GOP complaints
Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) altered the content of a website launched Wednesday to securely elicit reports of politicization of prosecutions from Justice Department staff. The move came in response to complaints issued by his Republican counterparts on the House Judiciary Committee that the whistleblowers website was set up in violation of Congressional rules.
"In an ongoing effort to create a sideshow and a distraction from these serious matters, some have raised allegations about a webpage that was designed to give Department whistleblowers a mechanism to securely communicate with the Committee," Conyers, the Judiciary Committee's Chairman, said in a statement late on Thursday. "The webpage was launched prematurely, but the content of it represented a good faith interpretation of House rules. Within three hours of learning about a different interpretation of the Rules and to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, the website was edited - removing one word - and is now, under any interpretation, in full compliance with the rules."
Rep. Conyers ordered the replacement from the website of a statement that "Communications will be received and reviewed by a select group of members of the majority staff of the Judiciary Committee." Now, the webpage states that the committee staff generally will receive the information, implying that both Democratic and Republican staff will be privy to the whistleblowers' complaints.
"We are glad the majority responded to Congressman Smith's concerns, and the congressman feels they are good first steps," Beth McGinn, a spokeswoman for Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), the Ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, told RAW STORY Friday morning. She did not say what additional steps the Republicans on the committee were hoping for.
Rep. Smith had been unaware of the website's existence before his office was contacted Thursday morning by RAW STORY.
During the day's hearing with Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, the Texas Republican warned that a nonpartisan House parliamentarian had concerns about the website as it was established.
"The Minority was not notified about this website, which is paid for with taxpayer funds. We have talked to the House parliamentarians and they are 'very troubled,' as well," he said in the hearing. "Let me say I hope that this website was not set up with Members' knowledge and I trust that it will be taken down immediately."
Rep. Chris Cannon (R-UT), who is the ranking minority member of the Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law that is investigating the firing of the 8 US Attorneys, issued a stronger statement.
"This website may violate the House Rule that says that all Members should have access to Committee records," the Utah Republican said. "Political influence neither began nor will it end with the Bush Administration. The creation of a secret website to collect gossip and rumors only accessible by the majority party, and only about the Bush Administration, is blatant partisanship."
The House parliamentarian's office did not respond to RAW STORY's inquiries about whether or not it was 'troubled' by the website's content.
Interestingly, it appears that other top Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee were unaware of the whistleblowers page.
"I want to thank the distinguished ranking member for his statement and state for the record I did not have knowledge of the website," said Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA), who chairs the Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law. "We will review it and make sure that it is an appropriate website, and if there are problems with it...we will take the necessary steps to correct that."
The sharing of the collected information is not the only change made to the website. Conyers also removed a statement saying that his Committee was only seeking reports on incidents that occurred since 2001. The Republicans on the committee had vociferously complained about this element of site in particular.
"To make matters worse, the Majority website makes clear that only allegations, rumors, or gossip about politicization of the Department of Justice after 2001 would be investigated," Rep. Cannon stated.
While Conyers agreed to make changes to the website, he maintained that the investigation into the US Attorneys firings remained credible and was not the partisan fishing expedition that Republicans have called it.
"When there is an ongoing internal nonpartisan Justice Department investigation, the former Republican Deputy Attorney General James Comey testifies to the Committee that these allegations are serious, and Republican Senators call for the Attorney General to step down over his conduct in these matters, I am disappointed some of my colleagues want to bury their heads in the sand and claim this is pointless," the Judiciary Committee chairman said in his statement.
Website entails risk for whistleblowers
Rep. Conyers' office did not respond to RAW STORY's inquiries about how letting the minority staff access the information from the website would affect its credibility with potential whistleblowers.
But whether or not the information from the Judiciary Committee is shared with Republican staff, one government watchdog said that whistleblowing always creates possible jeopardy for government employees.
"Being a whistleblower always entails a certain amount of risk. It is possible to lose a great deal without any guarantee of bringing about constructive change," said Steve Aftergood of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. "So I think it is possible that individual whistleblowers will test the new Judiciary Committee process to see if can deliver what it promises. If it cannot, or if the process is sabotaged by partisan forces, then it will quickly lose credibility and whistleblowers will go elsewhere."