By Josh Gerstein
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) accused President Barack Obama Wednesday of apocalyptic scare tactics on sequester budget cuts, particularly when the president claimed that criminals would run free as a result of the broad-based reductions.
Gowdy was especially steamed about Obama's comment in February that, due to the sequester, "Federal prosecutors will have to close cases and let criminals go."
"Who are those criminals that the president was referring to when he was invoking the Hale-Bopp Comet apocalypse talking about sequestration? Do you have any idea who those criminals would be?" Gowdy asked a panel of witnesses including Assistant Attorney General for Administration Lee Lofthus and Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz.
In an interesting reversal of typical left-right political roles, Gowdy, a former prosecutor, also questioned Obama's word choice. "I wonder who he's talking about, "those criminals'? If it's an open case in the U.S. Attorneys office, we typically refer to those folks as defendants as opposed to criminals," the ex-prosecutor noted. (Horowitz, also a former prosecutor, agreed that "defendant" is the correct term for someone charged but not convicted.)
A White House spokesman had no immediate comment on the criticism.
Lofthus stated earlier in the session that the sequester, if carried into Fiscal 2014, would cause a reduction of DOJ staffing to 2009 levels. That prompted Gowdy to ask: "How many criminals were let go in 2009?....I think we would have heard about it if a bunch of criminals were let go due to a lack of funding."
"The resources that are provided to the United States Attorneys' organization influences the staffing and the prosecutors and the paralegals we have," Lofthus replied.
"We had furloughs in South Carolina. We had to furlough prosecutors. We had to furlough victim advocates. We had to furlough administrative assistants and investigators. Not a single, solitary criminal case was closed because of those furloughs," Gowdy said.
"What I'm trying to get at is the irresponsibility of threatening--whether it's the attorney general saying we're going to be less safe or the president saying we're going to let those criminals go--because we can't survive on 2009 funding levels," the lawmaker added.
Gowdy suggested that U.S. Attorneys' salary-funding cuts of about $100 million per year could be made up through taking on volunteer prosecutors and by cutting back on conferences, which Lofthus said cost $54 million department-wide last year.
However, Lofthus said coming up with $100 million to cover such cuts was difficult to do given the cuts applied across the department. "Our problem is we have to save $1.6 billion," he said, meaning that U.S. Attorneys would have little choice but to cut staffing levels.
"They're going to have to look at taking cuts across the spectrum of their budget, that includes their personnel, their salaries and their benefits," Lofthus said.