House bank records are subpoenaed Justice Department takes action after request is rejected

April 25, 1992|By David Johnston | David Johnston,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- In an action that could lead to yet another round of battles over the House bank, the Justice Department has subpoenaed all financial records of every House member's transactions there for a 39-month period from 1988 to 1991.

The subpoenas were first disclosed in a letter that Speaker Thomas S. Foley of Washington state sent to his House colleagues yesterday.

Mr. Foley did not indicate whether the House leadership would comply with the subpoenas, which were issued on Tuesday.

But the speaker, disclosing a series of private meetings between House leaders and Justice Department officials, said he had rejected an informal request for most of the same records by Malcolm R. Wilkey, the special counsel who is conducting the department's preliminary criminal inquiry into the bank.

"I could not in conscience comply with the sweeping and unprecedented scope of his documentary request," Mr. Foley wrote of the informal request for documents, including those of 170 lawmakers who never overdrew on their House checking accounts.

Mr. Foley's letter, faxed to many lawmakers who were in their districts yesterday for the spring recess, said he had been unwilling to voluntarily turn over the records because House rules required consultation with other lawmakers before doing so.

The speaker said Mr. Wilkey, a retired federal appeals court judge, had proposed conducting his investigation as an "open-ended and undefined inquiry into the general financial activities of all members of the House of Representatives."

Mr. Foley's letter, hinting that the lawmakers might want to fight the subpoenas, seemed to be a holding action until the House reconvenes on Tuesday, two days before the date for compliance with the demand for documents.

Upon the lawmakers' return, Mr. Foley said, he will seek advice from Democratic and Republican leaders about how to respond to the Justice Department.

Still, Mr. Foley's unwillingness to turn over the records voluntarily seemed virtually certain to ignite a still hotter debate over the bank, despite the speaker's assertion last week that the release of the names of 252 current members and 51 former lawmakers who had overdrawn on their accounts had brought the issue to a close.

A spokesman for the Justice Department declined to comment on the subpoenas yesterday. But in a letter to Mr. Foley that accompanied the subpoenas, Mr. Wilkey said he wanted access to the microfilmed bank records because "nothing less than a complete look at the records -- with reference to the criminal law -- will satisfy the American people."

Mr. Wilkey said lawmakers themselves had spoken of "gross irregularities" at the bank. Noting that it was closed in December, he said that "customarily when a bank is closed because of such allegations, investigators have access to the complete records."

Justice Department officials have declined to specify what possible violations are under scrutiny, and no allegations have been made against any member.

But criminal defense lawyers and tax experts said the inquiry is likelyto center on whether any lawmakers who used the bank engaged in tax evasion or fraud, or violated campaign finance laws.

The fight over the records appeared to thrust lawmakers into the unwelcome posture of trying to thwart federal officials investigating whether there was criminal wrongdoing at the bank.

At the same time, Mr. Foley expressed the fear that a Republican administration might be exploiting the political furor over the bank in the Democratically controlled House for partisan advantage in an election year.

A legal battle over the subpoenaed bank documents pits the Justice Department, an executive branch agency, against the legislative branch in a potentially high-stakes constitutional battle.

At issue is the separation of powers, including the unsettled question of how far one branch, the Justice Department, may go in examining the activities of another, Congress.

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