The House Oversight Committee filed a civil contempt lawsuit against Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday seeking the release of documents linked to a controversial weapons crackdown.
The lawsuit asks a federal court judge to rule that President Barack Obama overstepped his authority in claiming executive privilege over documents sought by the committee in its investigation of the Fast and Furious weapons tracking program. The lawsuit also seeks an order requiring Holder to turn the documents over to House investigators.
"Waiting nearly eight months after the subpoena had been issued to assert a meritless claim of privilege, the President's decision was a calculated political maneuver designed to stop the release of documents until after November's elections, Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-California, said in a statement.
The lawsuit stems from a contempt of Congress citation passed by the House of Representatives last month, and was expected.
The House resolution gave lawmakers the option of filing a lawsuit if the Justice Department declined to file criminal charges against Holder.
Democrats say the GOP is using the issue to try to score political points by discrediting Holder and Obama in an election year.
"This partisan lawsuit wastes taxpayer dollars and resources, and is a distraction from the urgent business before Congress: acting to create jobs and grow our economy," House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said in a written statement. "It is also designed to distract the Justice Department from its critical job of challenging state laws designed to restrict the rights of Americans to vote."
Justice Department Director of Public Affairs Tracy Schmaler said in a statement that Holder's department had been "always willing to work with the Committee, instead the House and the Committee have said they prefer to litigate."
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives launched the Fast and Furious program in Arizona to track weapons purchases by Mexican drug cartels. It followed similar programs started in the Bush administration.
The program lost track of more than 1,000 firearms, two of which turned up in the 2010 killing of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.
The Justice Department announced on July 6 that it would not prosecute. The department said it has had a longstanding position across administrations of both parties not to proceed with prosecution when a president has asserted executive privilege, as Obama did.
Executive privilege refers to a president's authority to refuse to comply with some demands from lawmakers and judges to turn over documents and other materials.
The Obama administration said it was asserting the doctrine in the Fast and Furious case to shield documents that include internal deliberations traditionally protected from outside eyes.
Issa said the president was violating his promise to operate openly.
"After promising an unprecedented level of transparency, the President is attempting to expand the reach of executive privilege to obstruct the truth about the reckless conduct that contributed to the death of a Border Patrol Agent and countless Mexican citizens," Issa said. "The family of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, whistleblowers who faced retaliation for exposing the Justice Department's reckless tactics, and the public have a right to know the full extent of what occurred."
House Speaker John Boehner applauded the filing.
"After providing -- then retracting -- inaccurate information to Congress, Attorney General Holder has gone to extraordinary lengths to block access to subpoenaed documents and deny the efforts of the Terry family to get the truth," he said in a statement.
The showdown between Issa and Holder over the program dates to subpoenas issued last year by the House committee seeking a wide range of documents and other materials. Eventually, the committee reduced its demand to focus on documents involving decision-making after the administration shut down the Fast and Furious program.
In particular, the committee wanted documents relating to the period after February 2011, when the Justice Department sent Congress an erroneous letter -- later withdrawn -- that said top officials knew nothing about Fast and Furious until early that year.
In July, Issa conceded that investigators lack evidence that Holder knew of the failed weapons-tracking tactics of Fast and Furious. The contempt citation, he said, was for Holder's failure to comply with subpoenas seeking specific documents.
"It's not for what the attorney general knew about Fast and Furious," Issa said. "It's about the attorney general's refusal to provide the documents."
White House press secretary Jay Carney said last month that Issa's comment showed the contempt citation was about politics.