House panel recommends contempt charges against watchdog group

Posted: Thursday, July 20, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Rep. Don Young was one of the stars of a shouting match that errupted Wednesday after a House panel recommended that contempt of Congress charges be brought against a government watchdog group, three of its officials and an Interior Department worker.

The 27-16 vote by the House Resources Committee was the latest escalation in a fight between Republican lawmakers and the Project on Government Oversight over the group's role in exposing oil companies' underpayment of royalties to the federal government.

Debate on the measure grew so heated that the panel's top Democrat, Rep. George Miller of California, got into heated argument with Young, the Republican chairman.

''You're out of order,'' Young snapped as Miller objected to Young refusing to let Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., speak after a vote had been called.

''This committee is out of order!'' Miller shouted.

''It's the way the House is run. Behave yourself!'' Young replied.

Rep. Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii was the only Democrat who joined Republicans in voting for the contempt charge.

The panel's Republicans are investigating whether POGO broke the law by paying $383,000 each to Interior Department official Robert Berman and former Energy Department official Robert Speir, who worked on oil royalty issues. The Justice Department also is investigating.

''A special interest group paid off public officials who used inside information ... to line their own pockets,'' said Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Tex.

The watchdog group has said the payments were awards for public service and not improper.

Lawyers for Berman and POGO said the contempt recommendation was retaliation for their success in fighting oil companies.

''This action today is a continuing part of the effort by the supporters of the big oil companies to punish Mr. Berman for his 15-year-long effort to bring to the public the fraudulent conduct'' of the oil industry, said Berman's lawyer, Steve Tabackman.

Several major oil companies have paid the government more than $200 million to settle lawsuits by POGO and other whistleblowers. The lawsuits accused the companies of deliberately underpaying royalties for oil pumped from under federal and American Indian lands and waters.

Berman, POGO executive director Danielle Brian, POGO board member Henry Banta and POGO employee Keith Rutter have refused to answer some questions and turn over some documents. Those records include minutes of POGO board meetings and Brian's office and home telephone records.

Republican committee members ''don't like POGO,'' said the group's lawyer, Stanley Brand. ''They don't like POGO standing on its First Amendment rights, and they've decided to go forward notwithstanding the myriad flaws and deficiencies in their process.''

A vote by the full House is needed to send the matter to federal prosecutors, who would decide whether to bring a misdemeanor charge that carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

The last contempt of Congress prosecution was of former Environmental Protection Agency official Rita Lavelle in 1983. She was acquitted.

The contempt recommendation is the first from a House panel since 1998, when the Government Reform and Oversight Committee sought contempt charges against Attorney General Janet Reno. The full House never voted on that recommendation.


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