Panel calls for House to hold Trump officials in contempt over Census

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee on Tuesday moved to hold two top Trump administration officials in contempt of Congress for defying lawmakers investigating whether the administration was seeking to discriminate against certain groups by adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Attorney General William Barr speaks at the FBI National Academy Graduation Ceremony in Quantico, Virginia, U.S., June 7, 2019 REUTERS/Tom Brenner

In a report, the Democratic-controlled panel called on the full U.S. House of Representatives take up the contempt issue to force U.S. Attorney General William Barr and U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to comply with congressional subpoenas.

The move puts the issue before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who can bring it before the chamber for additional enforcement action including seeking legal redress over an issue with high political stakes ahead of the 2020 election.

The fight over the census is part of an escalating battle as House Democrats seek to hold the Republican president to account on myriad issues ranging from security clearances to Russian interference in U.S. politics.

The U.S. Census count is used to allot seats in the House and distribute federal funding. Critics have accused Republicans of seeking to engineer a deliberate population undercount in Democratic-leaning areas where many immigrants live. Republicans have argued the citizenship question, not asked in the Census since 1950, is needed to accurately count the population.

“The Trump Administration claimed that the only reason it wanted to add the citizenship question was to help the Department of Justice enforce the Voting Rights Act, but that claim has now been exposed as a pretext,” the panel’s chairman, Democratic U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings, said in a statement.

“Official after official appearing before the Committee have refused to answer questions about the real reasons behind their effort, but the mounting evidence points to a partisan and discriminatory effort to harm the interests of Democrats and non-whites.”

Representatives for the White House, the Department of Justice, the Commerce Department and Republicans on the committee did not respond to a request for comment.

Committee Democrats cited information from James Uthmeier, a former top advisor to Ross. They said Commerce officials tried to block Uthmeier from answering committee staffers’ questions, including those regarding which White House officials he spoke to and what Ross told him about the secretary’s reasons for pushing the citizenship questions.

The department also told Uthmeier not to disclose contents of a secret memo about the citizenship issue that he wrote for then acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore, the panel said. It said Uthmeier did acknowledge that he consulted with James Baker, an advocate of the citizenship question.

Two other partisan backers of the citizenship questions had also engaged with Trump Administration or transition team representatives on the issue, including Republican gerrymandering expert Thomas Hofeller and former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the committee said.

Additionally, Barr ordered Gore to defy a subpoena requiring him to give a deposition without a department representative present, the panel’s report said.

The U.S. Supreme Court is also expected to rule in a related court case on the census issue this week.

Writing by Susan Heavey. Editing by Jane Merriman, Chizu Nomiyama and David Gregorio

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