DOJ memo on threats to local school boards lambasted by Republicans at U.S. House hearing

WASHINGTON — U.S. House Republicans on Thursday continued to press accusations that a “woke agenda” is deteriorating parents’ rights in their local school districts.

The first hearing this Congress of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution and Limited Government convened to examine whether a 2021 Department of Justice memo played a role in “chilling” parents’ First Amendment rights at local public school board meetings.

The GOP has for roughly 18 months targeted an Oct. 4, 2021 memo issued by Attorney General Merrick Garland instructing federal law enforcement across the U.S. to “open dedicated lines of communication for threat reporting, assessment, and response” on possible criminal threats to local school board members over politically charged issues that flared up during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The single-page document by Garland directed the Federal Bureau of Investigation to be on alert for “a disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence” aimed at local school officials and teachers.

Garland has defended the memo, including during appearances before Congress.

In the panel’s two-hour hearing — occurring two days after a separate House Judiciary subcommittee released a 21-page report about the memo — GOP lawmakers criticized the Biden administration for intimidating parents “into silence by siccing federal law enforcement on them.”

“That (First Amendment) right has been significantly stifled over the past few years because the leftists have decided they apparently know better than parents do,” said the panel’s chair, Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, in his opening statement.

“That is an outrage and the American people are rising up to say that they will no longer tolerate it as the radical leftists push this woke agenda on America’s children,” he continued.

Democrats disagreed with the premise of Thursday’s hearing.

“Having served on school boards and having seen what’s been happening across the country in recent months, in recent years, I’d have to say that the real First Amendment threat that our schools, teachers, students and parents are facing is the attempt to turn classrooms into the epicenter of divisive culture wars,” said ranking member Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon of Pennsylvania.

But the witnesses invited by the majority echoed Johnson’s statements.

“One minute you’re making peanut butter and jelly, the next minute the FBI is calling you,” said Tiffany Justice, co-founder of Moms For Liberty, a group that says one of its members was contacted by federal authorities.

No parent or caretaker has been federally prosecuted since Garland issued the directive.

GOP report

The report on the Garland memo released on March 21 by a separate House Judiciary subcommittee cited FBI data stating 25 inquiries under the threat tag “EDUOFFICIALS” had been opened since the bureau began tracking the incidents. Such tags are routine labeling used by federal law enforcement to organize reports and assess trends.

The report — published by the House Judiciary’s Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government — concluded that Biden officials “colluded” with school board association leaders “to create a justification to use federal law-enforcement and counterterrorism resources against parents.”

Correspondence between the National School Boards Association and administration officials occurred in the days before Garland issued the memo.

The NSBA has since apologized for pressing for federal action during a wave of heated school board meeting interactions. A May report commissioned by the association documented the back-and-forth between its leaders and the White House.

The subcommittee cites the NSBA commissioned report and nearly 1,500 pages of documents from the Department of Justice and Department of Education it gained access to after issuing a subpoena to the agencies in February, according to the report.

Scanlon said there are different types of speech in question.

“There’s a huge difference between attempts to suppress free speech based on content as we’ve been seeing in recent years, and addressing speech that may be criminal because it threatens violence, which we have seen directed toward educators and school board members across the country,” she said. “Our Republican colleagues have tried to frame these potentially criminal acts to intimidate school board officials as examples of protected free speech by caring and involved parents. They are not.”

The subcommittee’s chairman, Johnson, promised that the hearing is “surely not going to be the last” on the topic.

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House Oversight chair’s agenda: Hunter Biden, COVID origins, classified documents

WASHINGTON — House Oversight and Accountability Committee Chair James Comer on Monday previewed his priorities for this Congress, which he says will include a heavy focus on the handling of classified documents, the origins of the COVID-19 virus, and what he described as possible “influence peddling” by Hunter Biden.

The Kentucky Republican addressed reporters and the public at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., taking audience questions and vowing to lead a “substantive committee.”

The panel will begin its work this session with a hearing Wednesday that will examine potential fraud and abuse of federal pandemic relief dollars, including small business loans and unspent funds left over in federal accounts.

“Unfortunately, over the last two years, there hasn’t been a single hearing in the Oversight Committee dealing with the pandemic spending, even though [the federal government] spent record amounts of money. That’s very concerning. I feel like we’re two years behind in oversight. So we’re gonna have to go back two years to try to get caught up,” Comer said.

The Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis under Democratic control during last Congress held hearings including on efforts to prevent pandemic relief fraud and examining anti-poverty pandemic initiatives.

For example, issues have surfaced after the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP loans, that were meant to keep struggling business owners afloat during the economic tumult of the global pandemic.

About 92% of those loans have been forgiven partially or in full, including the funds given to wealthy companies, according to an analysis of Small Business Administration data by NPR.

Classified documents

Reflecting on recent scandals involving classified government material found in the homes and personal offices of former and current U.S. leaders, Comer said Republicans and Democrats alike “all agree there’s a problem.”

After disclosures this month that classified documents were located in President Joe Biden’s think tank office and home, Comer sent letters to the White House and the U.S. Secret Service, requesting more information about who might have had access to the material.

Comer told the press Monday that the White House and the committee have not yet discussed a time to meet about the matter.

“We have to reform the way that documents are boxed up when they leave the president and vice president’s office and follow them in the private sector,” he said.

The committee, as soon as this week, plans to meet with the general counsel for the National Archives and Records Administration, the agency tasked with managing presidential documents.

Comer said he “wasn’t alarmed” by the news that Biden had classified documents in his Penn Biden Center office dating back to his vice presidency and in his Delaware home dating back to his days in the Senate. Department of Justice officials searched Biden’s home earlier this month, in what the president said was a voluntary search.

“I just thought it was ironic that the president was quick to call Donald Trump irresponsible for his handling of classified documents, and then he has the same thing happen,” Comer said.

The FBI in August executed a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago, former President Donald Trump’s Florida home and private club, and found about 100 documents with classified markings out of thousands searched.

“When Mar-a-Lago was raided, I went on TV… and I said ‘Look, this has been rumored to have been a problem with many former presidents about inadvertently taking documents,’” Comer said.

Biden family probe

However, Comer repeatedly said his committee will be taking aim at Biden — not solely over classified documents, but over whether the president benefited from his Yale-educated lawyer son Hunter’s business dealings with foreign powers.

Hunter Biden once sat on the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma and became connected with a Chinese energy tycoon who was later reportedly detained as part of an anti-corruption investigation.

“We’re investigating the president — this isn’t a Hunter Biden investigation, he’s a person of interest in the investigation of Joe Biden,” Comer said.

The White House has characterized the investigation as a conspiracy theory.

COVID origins

Another issue that Comer said he hopes will be bipartisan: the origins of the COVID-19 virus.

A select committee to examine the topic will be housed under the Committee on Oversight and Accountability.

“No Republicans are accusing Democrats of starting COVID-19. We’re wondering if COVID-19 started in the Wuhan (China) lab, so no one said ‘Oh, that was started by a Democrat.’ But for whatever reason there were never any bipartisan hearings on the origination of COVID,” Comer said. “… It should be bipartisan. Hopefully this won’t be a select committee like (the) January 6th (select committee), which was considered overtly partisan.”

A March 2021 report by the World Health Organization found that it was “likely to very likely” that an animal host carried the virus and transmitted it to humans, but a source was not definitively identified. The United States and several other countries expressed concern about delays and access to data used in the report.

For all of its wide-ranging examinations, there are two topics the Oversight Committee won’t be raising: the 2020 election results and police reform.

“At the end of the day, we’ve got our plate full with excessive spending and public corruption,” Comer said.

In light of this month’s brutal beating and death of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police, Comer said any discussion of police reform remains under the Judiciary Committee.

“We don’t want to reach into other committees’ areas of jurisdiction,” Comer said. “… Certainly there are bad apples in every profession, bad politicians, bad police officers, and they need to be held accountable.”

The Committee on Oversight and Accountability will hold its first full committee organization meeting at 11 a.m. Tuesday.

Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Iowa Capital Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kathie Obradovich for questions: Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.