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Breaking News Circa 1795: Congress Investigates Corruption

The June 28 contempt order against Attorney General Eric Holder for ‘refusal to cooperate’ in the investigation of the Fast and Furious gun-walking operation included a briefing memo.

Part of the memo surveyed the history of Congressional contempt orders.

It turns out — no surprise — that behind Congress’s creation of its contempt power was a corruption investigation. That was in 1795, when George Washington was president.

Which shows again that there’s nothing new under the sun.

*     *     *

Here’s an excerpt from the modern-day House briefing memo (without footnotes):

Congress first exercised its contempt authority in 1795 when three Members of the House charged two businessmen, Robert Randall and Charles Whitney, with offering bribes in exchange for the passage of legislation granting Randall and his business partners several million acres bordering Lake Erie. This first contempt proceeding began with a resolution by the House deeming the allegations were adequate “evidence of an attempt to corrupt,” and the House reported a corresponding resolution that was referred to a special committee. The special committee reported a resolution recommending formal proceedings against Randall and Whitney “at the bar of the House.”

The House adopted the committee resolution which laid out the procedure for the contempt proceeding. Interrogatories were exchanged, testimony was received, Randall and Whitney were provided counsel, and at the conclusion, on January 4, 1796, the House voted 78-17 to adopt a resolution finding Randall guilty of contempt. As punishment Randall was “ordered [] to be brought to the bar, reprimanded by the Speaker, and held in custody until further resolution of the House.” Randall was detained until January 13, 1796, when the House passed a resolution discharging him. In contrast, Whitney “was absolved of any wrongdoing,” since his actions were against a “member-elect” and occurred “away from the seat of government.”

The full briefing memo is here.

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