When is a committee not a committee? When it is a subcommittee.
More than just a punchline, this is one of the key facts that led a U.S. district judge recently to dismiss charges against an employee of British Petroleum arising from his statements made in response to inquiries from a Congressional subcommittee regarding the BP Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
In United States v. David Rainey, the defendant was charged inter alia with a violation of Title 18, United States Code section 1505, which criminalizes the obstruction of “the due and proper exercise of the power of inquiry under which any inquiry or investigation is being had by either House, or any committee of either House or any joint committee of the Congress.” The charges against Rainey were based upon allegedly false statements that he made to the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment of the Committee on Energy and Commerce. One basis on which the defendant sought to dismiss the charge against him was the argument that the statute does not include the term “subcommittee” and therefore did not apply to his conduct.
In granting Rainey’s motion to dismiss, U.S. District Judge Kurt D. Engelhardt of the Eastern District of Louisiana emphasized that, “where a criminal defendant’s strict reading of a criminal statute is reasonable, the court is not free to choose among reasonable interpretations the version that (in the court’s view) represents better policy or better accomplishes a perceived broad congressional purpose.” The Court noted that a generic reading of the term “committees” would include subcommittees, as the government argued, but that “[w]ithin Congress, the terms ‘committee’ and ‘subcommittee’ have distinct meanings” and are “terms of art.” Because the Court could not “say with certainty” that Congress intended section 1505 to reach subcommittee inquiries, the Court dismissed the charge under that statute relating to Rainey’s statements to the subcommittee.
To the extent that Congress pursues investigative inquiries through its subcommittees, the Rainey case obviously provides a cautionary tale for prosecutors who seek to bring criminal charges based on the conduct of those who respond to those inquiries. Given that the purpose of Congressional inquiries is not specifically to entrap individuals in criminal conduct, this ruling – even if followed by other courts – is not likely to change the way in which Congress pursues its inquiries. The case is notable, however, as an excellent example of careful parsing of a criminal statute that may be useful to defense counsel seeking to apply the same rule of lenity to other criminal statutes.