Washington — Assistant Attorney General Carlos Uriarte has spent months preparing to face off against House Republicans as they unleash a gantlet of congressional investigations into the Justice Department.
As the head of the Office of Legislative Affairs — the Justice Department’s liaison to Capitol Hill — Uriarte will be thrust into a high-stakes but largely behind-the-scenes role in coming months as House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, leads a sweeping examination of the Justice Department and FBI.
In readying for the challenge, Uriarte has studied congressional investigations in recent decades and quizzed his predecessors on what went right and wrong in their role as ambassador to Congress.
“Frankly, I think it makes the department better when Congress is effectively doing oversight of the department, and so my view is, I want to be as cooperative as we can with them. I want to find those areas where we can work with Congress , because I know that it makes the department better when we do that, (and) are transparent, but I also recognize that there’s some ways and times where we can’t do that,” Uriate, a Bay Area native, told the Los Angeles Times in an interview.
House Republicans are planning multiple investigations, and have formed the select subcommittee on the weaponization of the federal government, which they say is modeled after the 1975 Senate select committee led by Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, that looked into intelligence agencies failures after the Watergate scandal.
The newly created subcommittee is expected to launch an inquiry into whether federal law enforcement and national security agencies sought to censor conservative views at all levels of government, from the presidency down, as well as in private life, on social media and in school board meetings .
The Justice Department is also expected to be pulled into an investigation led by House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer, R-Ky., into the business dealings of President Biden’s son, Hunter, and the family’s finances.
“The Assistant attorney general stands right between the executive branch and the legislative branch. There’s pressure on both sides. The Department of Justice is reluctant to provide information on many matters, and the Hill wants information. It is obviously more difficult when one house is dramatically of Congress is controlled by the opposite party,” said Ronald Weich, who was assistant attorney general for legislative affairs under President Obama and is now dean of the University of Baltimore School of Law.
Weich said Uriarte’s background working in Congress and for the executive branch makes him exceptionally prepared for the onslaught of investigations, which he will manage alongside his office’s other duties, which include responding to requests from members of Congress for information and help writing legislation, preparing Justice Department officials to testify before Congress and provide consistent messaging from the department to Capitol Hill.
“Having been on the Hill, he’s worked elsewhere in the Department of Justice, he knows the terrain. This is not a job for an amateur. It needs someone who has seen this process before, and Carlos has,” Weich said.
‘Obligation to give back’
Born in San Leandro in 1979, Uriarte spent time in the Bay Area and in eastern Washington state while he was growing up. A framed photo of his grandmother’s citizenship ceremony sat on top of the television in their home, a constant reminder of his sense of purpose.
“In my family, there was always a deep sense of obligation to give back, that this country had given my grandparents just this amazing opportunity,” he said. “(My grandmother) would talk about how important it was for her to be engaged civically, and how important it was for us to be giving back, and so I always had that sense of growing up, even if I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do.”
Uriarte earned a bachelor’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis in 2002 and a juris doctor from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 2005. After a few years in private practice he was hired as legislative counsel for Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., in 2009. She called him a “Californian through and through.”
“His counsel as I served on the Oversight and Judiciary committees early in my congressional career was invaluable, and the knowledge he gained here has served him well throughout his career to the present day,” Chu said in a statement.
He served as counsel for Democrats on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform from 2011 to 2013, including during the 2011 and 2012 Republican oversight of Operation Fast and Furious, in which federal officials allowed weapons to be sold to Mexican drug cartels in an effort to track down cartel leaders.
In his current role, Uriarte will encounter several familiar faces from that investigation, when fights over documents and testimony led to then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder being held in contempt of Congress. Jordan has hired several Republican staffers who served then-committee Chairman Darrell Issa, including Steve Castor, who is general counsel for Republicans on the Judiciary Committee. Castor led Republican questioning during then-President Donald Trump’s first impeachment.
“You’re going to see pros who know how to throw bricks,” said Robert Raben, president of the consulting firm the Raben Group, who led legislative affairs during the Clinton administration. “The (Justice) Department absolutely needs the advice and the steady hands of someone who knows the institution which is overseeing them.”
Uriate also served as senior counsel in the Interior Department and as an associate deputy attorney general during the Obama administration. He returned to Capitol Hill in 2020 to serve as chief counsel for investigations for the House select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis.
The Senate voted unanimously to confirm him as assistant attorney general in August.
“He’s been on the other side of the subpoena wars,” Weich said. “That’s good. He understands the motivation of Hill staffers, and he is well familiar with the limits of information that can be provided appropriately.”
House GOP investigations are expected to launch in the coming weeks, but Republicans signaled what they wanted months in advance by ordering the Justice Department to preserve hundreds of documents and prepare dozens of witnesses to testify while they were still in the minority.
Jordan’s committee has fairly open-ended authority to scrutinize any issue related to civil liberties, or to examine how any federal agency has collected, analyzed and used information about Americans. The authorizing resolution instructs the panel to obtain information about ongoing criminal investigations, which is expected to include the special counsel examination of Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election and his handling of classified documents.
On Friday, Uriarte issued his opening salvo, a private letter to Jordan that was quickly leaked to the press, which outlined the standard processes of the Justice Department intends to follow in dealing with the committee, such as how much time it needs to prepare witnesses to testify, and define the boundaries of what it will and will not do. For example, it won’t provide the names of agents assigned to particular investigations or records from ongoing cases.
“Consistent with longstanding policy and practice, any oversight requests must be weighed against the Department’s interests in protecting the integrity of its work,” Uriarte wrote in the five-page letter. “The department’s longstanding policy prevents us from confirming or denying the existence of pending investigations in response to congressional requests or providing non-public information about our investigations.”
It resembles a 2000 letter the Justice Department first sent to then-Rep. John Linder, a Georgia Republican, which detailed the department’s long-standing policies and procedures, including when the Supreme Court has said the executive branch can withhold information from Congress. That letter has been used by administrations of both parties to explain the limitations on congressional oversight.
Raben, the author of the Linder letter, criticized Uriarte’s version and said it put down a marker of the deliberate action of the committee and the public should expect from the department.
“They are doing something which the office doesn’t normally do: They are telling a story,” Raben said. “They are getting ahead of what they expect, which is constant demonization and undermining of their function.”
Since the Reagan administration, oversight investigations normally begin with a broad document request by a congressional committee and then a lengthy negotiation over what the executive branch would provide. Most disputes are handled without fanfare. Issuing subpoenas and holding agency heads in contempt were rare, though impasses occurred in nearly every administration. The Trump administration for the most part refused to negotiate over documents and witnesses, which resulted in more court battles than usual. It remains to be seen how much negotiation will be sought by Jordan’s committee.
Uriarte said he wanted to find common ground while upholding the Justice Department’s ability to protect ongoing investigations, federal agents and prosecutors and national security information. He emphasized understanding why the department has certain traditions, specifically the prohibition against sharing information with Congress about ongoing investigations so that innocent individuals are not harmed.
“It’s not … about Congress. It’s about the perception that we want to avoid political interference in our work, and the importance of protecting those individuals who are involved in our investigations, too,” he said. “Those traditions are long-standing, and I really think that those traditions are going to be important guardrails for us to rely on as we look ahead to this Congress.”
Weich said Uriate was well prepared for the balancing act.
“Carlos has a very calm and mature style, and that will serve him well. You can’t panic. You can’t sway in the wind. He will take each request as it comes and work with others in the department make a determination about what can appropriately be said. I’m sure he’s going to respond to oversight requests respectfully,” Weich said. “But respectful doesn’t mean complying with every request.”
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