WASHINGTON — Justice Department officials heading up the criminal investigation into the attack on the U.S. Capitol have asked a House committee for transcripts of interviews conducted in its Jan. 6 investigation, another sign the Justice Department is widening its inquiry.
The chief of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, Kenneth Polite, and the U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C., Matthew Graves, sent a letter last month to the lead investigator for the House panel, former U.S. Attorney Timothy Heaphy, requesting interview transcripts. The New York Times first reported on the April 20 letter. A source familiar with the letter confirmed its contents.
Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., indicated Tuesday that the panel wasn't prepared to hand over the transcripts while suggesting Justice Department officials could still view specific documents in person.
Thompson told reporters that the committee was willing to talk to Justice Department investigators but that at this point “we can’t give them full access to our product.”
“That would be premature at this point, because we haven’t completed our work,” Thompson said.
A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment.
It’s not unprecedented for Justice Department criminal investigations to lean on information dug up in probes conducted by Congress, which has more leeway in its inquiries. The Justice Department can prosecute people charged with lying and obstructing congressional investigations.
The committee has been working for nearly a year to unearth the full story behind the events of Jan. 6. The Justice Department, which focuses on cases in which there is probable cause to believe there was a specific violation of federal law, has also run a wide-ranging criminal investigation that has included misdemeanors to seditious conspiracy. News of the letter to the House committee is yet another indication that the Justice Department is widening its investigation and looking at the events leading up to Jan. 6 and that it may be examining the broader effort to overturn the 2020 election.
Committee members have long been frustrated by what they say is the Justice Department’s focus on comparatively low-level actors who stormed the Capitol. One panel member, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., has repeatedly faulted the department for not looking into the pressure President Donald Trump applied to Georgia officials who certified Joe Biden’s victory in the state. Members have also chastised Justice Department officials for not acting more swiftly to prosecute some who have refused to comply with congressional subpoenas.
Schiff on Tuesday questioned why the Justice Department was asking for help from lawmakers when it has “greater resources” and similar subpoena powers.
“While the committee wants to make sure that we are supporting the work of the Department of Justice, we also have our own institutional equities that have to be weighed. And as the chairman pointed out, simply turning over files is not the way to weigh those equities. I think they’ll have to be weighed in a very specific case by case basis,” Schiff told NBC News.
“And I think the breadth of the department’s request does raise questions for me about why the department would rely on the work of Congress, why it has taken so long to get its own investigative efforts underway, beyond those that it has already undertaken,” he continued. “They have far greater resources than we do.”
The Biden administration is seeking millions of additional dollars to handle the hundreds of cases stemming from last year’s riot. More than 2,500 people are believed to have entered the Capitol on Jan. 6, and the FBI’s Capitol Violence website features images of hundreds of rioters who assaulted officers but who have not yet been arrested.
The Justice Department has charged nearly 800 people in connection with the Jan. 6 attack, and more than 280 have pleaded guilty. Several defendants have cooperated with the House committee, and their testimony has been seen favorably by judges at sentencing hearings.