What are the limits of a congressional committee’s power?
That is the question posed by the actions of Rep. Devin Nunes who is using — abusing, some say — his power as chairman of the House intelligence committee to investigate Fusion GPS, the company that produce the Steele dossier.
In its purported investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, the committee has issued a single subpoena for financial records. That subpoena went to Fusion GPS’ bank and is now the subject of a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C.
You’ll recall that Chairman Nunes worked on the Trump campaign and purportedly recused himself from his committee’s Russia investigation. But he is unable to restrain himself when it comes to Fusion GPS. The subpoena to the firm went out with his signature on it.
Fusion GPS says the subpoena, which demands years of records, is little more than a transparent effort by Chairman Nunes to expose its clients — even those that had nothing to do with Russia — and destroy the secretive company’s business model.
It’s worth noting that Deutsche Bank, which has all sorts of shady dealings with Russia and continued lending to Trump even after he sued them, got a pass from Chairman Nunes’ committee.
In a more recent court filing a few days ago, lawyers for Fusion GPS make the claim that Chairman Nunes is actively working to undermine his own committee’s investigation:
There is evidence that the Committee is coordinating with the President, his personal lawyers, and the Senate Judiciary Committee to misdirect attention to Fusion and its associates in an effort to punish and discredit Fusion, due to their perceived role in exposing the ties between the Trump campaign and the Russians. This coordinated effort includes the subpoena to Fusion’s bank and the apparent leaks from the Committee, and it has been amplified in recent days by attacks on the FBI and Justice Department by members of Congress, the President, and his lawyers.
In its pleadings to the court, Fusion GPS cites the Supreme Court ruling in Watkins v. United States. This case involved John Watkins, a labor organizer, who in 1954 was subpoenaed to testify before Sen. Joe McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities. Watkins answered questions about his own activities in the Communist Party but he refused to answer questions about other people. He was convicted of contempt of Congress, but appealed his conviction saying Congress had abused its powers.
The Supreme Court agreed, ruling 6-1, that Congress’ power to investigate was broad, but not unlimited. “No inquiry is an end in itself; it must be related to, and in furtherance of, a legitimate task of the Congress,” the court ruled. “Investigations conducted solely for the personal aggrandizement of the investigators or to ‘punish’ those investigated are indefensible.”
Indefensible seems an apt work to describe Chairman Nunes’ investigation of Fusion GPS.