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On Capitol Hill today, lawmakers pelted the attorney general with questions. They focused on the Justice Department's investigation into a big IRS scandal and its subpoena for reporters' phone records in a separate case. After four years in office, Attorney General Eric Holder is no stranger to hostile questions from the House Judiciary Committee, especially at an oversight hearing where lawmakers can ask anything and everything.
NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been following the hearing. Hey there, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi.
CORNISH: Now, let's start with that IRS case. The FBI is looking into the IRS targeting of Tea Party and other groups for extra scrutiny. Talk more about that. How was it addressed at the hearing?
JOHNSON: Well, the attorney general was asked a lot of questions about what kinds of statutes or laws might have been violated. We got a little bit of new information there. One is he said that they're looking at whether any civil rights statutes were violated because there are laws on the books that talk about the abuse of authority and targeting people in a way that threatens their civil rights, which may have happened here.
He also mentioned false statements laws. If any IRS officials testified to Congress that they didn't know about this activity, and it later turns out that they did. Obviously there's a lot of political sensitivity here. The attorney general addressed that head-on.
ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: And I can assure you and the American people that we will take a dispassionate view of this. This will not be about parties. This will not be about ideological persuasions. Anybody who has broken the law will be held accountable.
CORNISH: Now, there was a lot of anticipation in Washington about this hearing and lots of pressure on the Justice Department right now. What was the mood?
JOHNSON: Audie, in a word, the mood was strange. It started with a protester from the group Code Pink approaching the attorney general and demanding to know what he was doing to close the Guantanamo Bay prison. Then we moved on to North Carolina Democrat Mel Watt. He showed up with his grandson on his lap, prompting this response from the attorney general.
HOLDER: Mr. Watt, you're only supposed to do that at your confirmation hearing. That's when you roll out the kids.
JOHNSON: Holder's referring to Watt being the nominee to lead the federal housing regulator. That's the body that oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. It's also worth mentioning here that the House last year voted to hold Attorney General Holder in contempt over that Fast and Furious ATF scandal, and at the center of that was California Republican Darrell Issa. Issa and Holder had some testy words again today. Take a listen.
REPRESENTATIVE DARRELL ISSA: Mr. Attorney General, in knowing the to and from...
HOLDER: No, no. That's what you typically do.
ISSA: Knowing the to and...
HOLDER: No, I'm not going to stop talking now.
HOLDER: You characterized something as something...
ISSA: Mr. Chairman, would you inform the witness as to the rules of this committee?
HOLDER: That is inappropriate and is too consistent with the way in which you conduct yourself as a member of Congress. It's unacceptable, and it's shameful.
CORNISH: That's quite an exchange. I want to move on to more of the substance. Lawmakers from both political parties say they're upset about a broad subpoena for phone records for Associated Press reporters. Now, the attorney general says he's recused himself from that case. So is there more detail about how and why?
JOHNSON: A little bit. Holder says he was interviewed by the FBI last year as part of the investigation into the leak of national security information. He didn't want to have a conflict of interest by leading that investigation. But lawmakers said they couldn't understand why Holder's deputy, Jim Cole, wasn't in the same boat, given that he presumably had access to that information too. Alabama Republican Spencer Bachus wanted to know why Cole wasn't on the Hill to talk about the controversy today.
REPRESENTATIVE SPENCER BACHUS: Is Deputy Cole willing and able to appear before this committee and answer the questions that you cannot answer?
HOLDER: I'm sure he'd be willing to. I'm not sure he'd be in a position to answer the questions because you'd be asking questions about an ongoing matter.
JOHNSON: Then Congressman Bachus honed in on whether Holder really stepped aside in the right way here.
BACHUS: Let me ask you this: On what day did you recuse yourself?
HOLDER: I'm not sure. I think it was just towards the beginning of the matter.
BACHUS: When you recused yourself, was there any - was it in writing? Was it orally? Who did you - did you alert the White House?
HOLDER: I certainly did not alert the White House. We don't talk to the White House about...
BACHUS: Who do you recuse yourself to?
HOLDER: I would have told the deputy attorney general, as I have done in other matters.
JOHNSON: But Wisconsin Republican James Sensenbrenner said it sounded like the Justice Department was just passing the buck, Audie.
REPRESENTATIVE FRANK JAMES SENSENBRENNER: Now, may I suggest that you and maybe Mr. Cole and a few other people go to the Truman Library and take a picture of this thing that he had on his desk that said the buck stops here?
CORNISH: Carrie, what happens next?
JOHNSON: Holder has promised to do an after action report about the whole AP mess after this investigation is over.
CORNISH: That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thank you.
JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.