After two years during which it didn’t need to worry about congressional subpoenas, President Barack Obama’s legal shop is making preparations for a possible onslaught of Republican investigations.
Two members of the White House Counsel’s Office, Kathryn Ruemmler and Kimberley Harris, are taking the initial lead, three people familiar with the administration’s planning say. Both have done tours of duty as U.S. Justice Department officials and as litigators in private practice, giving them broad experience in investigations.
In what has been called the “spear-catcher” role, they have been tasked with figuring how to respond to the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives. Incoming chairmen are pledging stepped-up oversight of the administration, and that will mean demands for documents and for testimony by administration officials.
A top White House goal is likely to be keeping those investigations from becoming major distractions. That’s something other administrations have struggled with, but that recent experience could also be a guide for Obama’s team.
Jack Quinn, who served as White House counsel during the Clinton administration, had a team of people specializing in oversight, separate from other lawyers who worked on policy. Over time, the team grew. “We really had to increase the size of the staff that was helping to respond,” said Quinn, now the chairman of the Washington lobbying firm Quinn Gillespie & Associates.
Obama’s team is expected to grow, too, possibly pulling in additional lawyers from private practice or Capitol Hill. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the outgoing chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has a staff that specializes in oversight, and he’s about to lose funding for half their jobs. The same is true for the staff of Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the outgoing chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
When congressional investigations became more intense, President Bill Clinton eventually brought in Lanny Breuer, then a Covington & Burling partner and now an assistant attorney general. President George W. Bush hired Williams & Connolly partner Emmet Flood as a special counsel for investigations in 2007.
Ruemmler and Harris have followed similar paths to each other. Ruemmler, the top deputy to White House Counsel Robert Bauer, has served twice in the Justice Department, most recently as a top deputy to then-Deputy Attorney General David Ogden and earlier as deputy director of the Enron Task Force. In between, she was a Latham & Watkins partner. Harris worked in the Justice Department’s Criminal Division last year before becoming an associate counsel to the president. She’s a former partner at Davis Polk & Wardwell in New York, where she helped to defend AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals L.P. in a variety of litigation.
A White House spokesman declined to comment on the administration’s plans or to make officials available for interviews.
A NEW LANDSCAPE
Since taking office, Obama has rarely needed to think about congressional inquiries. After two socialites from Virginia found their way into a state dinner in November 2009 without being invited, Republicans wanted Desirée Rogers, the White House social secretary, to testify. Democrats blocked a proposed subpoena.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has requested information for two years as the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. But the White House had little interest in responding, according to a talk that Obama’s first counsel, Gregory Craig, gave at Columbia Law School in September.
“We got I think it was 23 letters from Dale Issa of California, as if he were in charge of an investigative committee, demanding this, that and the other thing, and he wasn’t even a ranking member of a subcommittee,” Craig said, misstating Issa’s name and title. “He was just writing these letters, saying, ‘Please turn over, please send up,’ and we had to be, ‘With all respect, sir, we don’t do that for every member of the House of Representatives who wants to get testimony or documents.’ ”
A spokesman for Issa, who is set to become chairman of the oversight committee in January, said his staff has not yet had any meetings with White House counterparts.
Craig, now a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, also had a sympathetic word for Obama’s lawyers. “The quality of life in the White House will not be nearly as high,” he said, “because you’re going to be probably under attack the entire time, mostly for manufactured or political reasons.” Much of the lawyers’ time, he said, will be taken up by reviewing documents and preparing witnesses.
Others think that Issa and other House Republicans will start off cautious, remembering that some of the investigations into Clinton backfired. “I’m not buying any suggestion that people are going to act inappropriately,” said Patton Boggs partner Robert Luskin, who specializes in investigations. He noted that Issa has been talking for months about possible subjects he’d like to look into. “It’s not as though that’s a secret,” Luskin said.
Quinn said the White House has to expect investigations into almost any subject — which makes planning all the more difficult. “Who has experience in the law regarding the use of the White House database? Or the handling of FBI files? Or firing somebody who works in the White House travel office?” he said, listing just a few of the inquiries the Clinton administration faced.
David Ingram can be reached at email@example.com.