The Danger of Congressional Oversight


“Quite as important as lawmaking is vigilant oversight of administration.”
Woodrow Wilson, Congressional Government (1885)

The scene on television is all too familiar. Corporate executives from a company in the headlines are dragged before a Congressional committee, they are placed under oath, and they are asked a series of questions by Senators or Congressmen/women, to which they each respond by asserting their Fifth Amendment privilege. For Congress, this I considered a victory. They get to grandstand before the public and launch their attacks on behalf of the public against the latest corporate villan.

Congressional oversight poses significant risks to businesses and individuals. Congressional investigations involve a unique blend of politics, procedure, publicity and “fact-finding.” Multi-disciplinary approaches – political and legal tactics—must be combined to help clients navigate such investigations in order to protect a company and/or individuals.

Oversight is broadly defined s the review, monitoring and supervision of the implementation of public policy of the executive branch. Congressional power to conduct oversight is rarely circumscribed by the courts.

The only rule is that there are no rules. The rules of evidence do not apply, common law privileges usually do not apply (except if a Committee recognizes such a privilege), and enforcement proceedings can result in contempt of Congress.

The risks to business and individuals are well established. Criminal referrals for perjury, false statements (e.g. Roger Clemens), follow on criminal prosecutions using statements elicited during Congressional testimony (e.g. Watergate, Iran Contra), civil proccedings which run parallel to Congressional investigations, and what I call the “whipsaw effect” – Congressional prodding to government regulators or prosecutors to cajole them into launching criminal and/or regulatory enforcement proceedings. In addition to the clear legal implications, businesses face significant risks of political and reputational harm, all of which can result in significant economic harm.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Michael Volkov, The Volkov Law Group | Attorney Advertising

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