May 20, 2020

SFRC Democrats Confront Committee Chairman for Holding Controversial Non-COVID Business Meeting While Limiting Press Access

WASHINGTON – Ranking Member Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) was joined by the entire Democratic bench of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in sending a pair of letters today to Chairman Jim Risch (R-Idaho) to reinforce their opposition to his plans to convene a committee business meeting without any major legislation related to fighting COVID-19, against multiple objections from committee members, and while limiting press and public access. With a proposed agenda centered on voting on controversial political nominee Michael Pack, who is being actively investigated by the District of Columbia’s Attorney General for a history of unresolved tax issues, the Democrats highlighted that such a meeting was inappropriate and would present an unnecessary risk to the health of those in attendance.

Following a pressure campaign from President Trump and his allies, Chairman Jim Risch originally scheduled the committee business meeting for last week to force a vote on Mr. Pack’s nomination. The business meeting was abruptly postponed at the last minute following multiple objections from members on both sides of the aisle. The Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia (OAG) later informed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that it is actively investigating whether Mr. Pack’s use of his nonprofit’s funds was unlawful and whether he improperly used those funds to benefit himself

“Instead of taking a step back and seeking a bipartisan solution, you are now planning to put Mr. Pack up for a Committee vote despite the fact that his business dealings are the target of an active law enforcement investigation and reportedly the subject of law enforcement subpoenas, and despite his continued refusal to correct false statements he made to the IRS,” wrote the Democrats to Chairman Risch. “Your plan to jam Mr. Pack through the Committee means that members will be voting on Mr. Pack without any answers on whether he has violated the law; whether other jurisdictions, in addition to the OAG, are investigating Mr. Pack; and whether you have any intent to cooperate with the OAG request for the Committee to provide documents related to Mr. Pack to assist with the OAG investigation…  We understand that the White House has put immense pressure on certain Senators to move forward with Mr. Pack despite his legal problems, but we urge you instead to work with us to find a bipartisan solution that advances the interests of the American people.”

In a separate letter, the Democrats also raised their serious concerns with Chairman Risch’s surprising choice not to allow a live-stream video of the Committee’s business meeting. The members requested he immediately reverse his decision to ensure members of the press and the American public can still watch the proceedings while following the Attending Physician’s coronavirus guidelines.

“As legislators, we must hold ourselves to the highest standard of transparency and accountability, especially against a backdrop of global uncertainty,” wrote the Members to Chairman Risch. “The American public has the right to see and hear their Senators as we debate and vote on nominees and critical legislation.  Live stream video is consistent with the Senate ‘sunshine’ rules and with normal committee practice when the public is allowed into the Committee room in the Capitol to both see and hear their Senators. We know you share the importance of ensuring accountability, transparency and freedom of the press as part of our regular committee practices.”

Joining Menendez in sending the letters were all Democratic members of the committee: Senators Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.).

The full text of the letters to Chairman Risch can be found HERE, HERE and below.

 

Dear Chairman Risch,

We strongly object to your plan to hold a vote on the nomination of Michael Pack on Thursday, May 21st. 

On May 7, 2020, we requested that you not move forward with a vote on Mr. Pack because of his refusal to provide the Committee information concerning what appear to be potentially illegal business dealings, as well as other matters. We are deeply disappointed that you did not respond to our concerns and that you scheduled a May 14 vote on Mr. Pack over our objection, contrary to the overwhelming practice and precedent of this Committee.

Thankfully, that vote did not occur. As the Committee now knows, the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia (OAG) is investigating Mr. Pack in relation to the very same potential self-dealing and self-enrichment that formed the heart of the Committee’s questions to him.

Instead of taking a step back and seeking a bipartisan solution, you are now planning to put Mr. Pack up for a Committee vote despite the fact that his business dealings are the target of an active law enforcement investigation and reportedly the subject of law enforcement subpoenas, and despite his continued refusal to correct false statements he made to the IRS. 

Your plan to jam Mr. Pack through the Committee means that members will be voting on Mr. Pack without any answers on whether he has violated the law; whether other jurisdictions, in addition to the OAG, are investigating Mr. Pack; and whether you have any intent to cooperate with the OAG request for the Committee to provide documents related to Mr. Pack to assist with the OAG investigation.   Moving forward under these circumstance is completely unacceptable and undermines the Committee and Senate interests in transparency and the rule of law.

We understand that the White House has put immense pressure on certain Senators to move forward with Mr. Pack despite his legal problems, but we urge you instead to work with us to find a bipartisan solution that advances the interests of the American people.

The egregious situation involving Mr. Pack is exacerbated by your intent to hold the vote in violation of Committee rules. Rule 3(d) requires a minimum of seven days advance public notice for a business meeting. You are providing two days’ notice for the Pack vote.

The rule allows for an exception to the 7-day notice requirement only if the Chairman, in consultation with the Ranking Member, determines there is good cause. Here, there was no consultation with Ranking Member Menendez, and there is nothing that qualifies as “good cause.” Mr. Pack’s nomination has no connection to COVID-19 and is not urgent from a national security or foreign policy perspective. As a result, scheduling this vote for May 21 is a blatant violation of a basic rule intended to enhance transparency for the American people and safeguard their ability to monitor Committee activities.   

The longstanding tradition of this Committee is for Republicans and Democrats to come together, find common ground, and resolve the most difficult issues. We are confident that we can do that in relation to the Pack nomination, and we urge you to work with us towards a consensus solution.

Sincerely,

___________________________

 

Chairman Risch,

We are writing to you because we are deeply concerned about your plans to only provide an audio stream of Thursday’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee business meeting. We request that the business meeting be video streamed live.

The American public has the right to see and hear their Senators as we debate and vote on nominees and critical legislation.  Live stream video is consistent with the Senate “sunshine” rules and with normal committee practice when the public is allowed into the Committee room in the Capitol to both see and hear their Senators. We know you share the importance of ensuring accountability, transparency, and freedom of the press as part of our regular committee practices.

We also remind the Chairman that the Senate Rules guidance from Chairman Blunt and Ranking Member Klobuchar provided on April 30 emphasizes the importance of technology that allows the American people to view congressional proceedings. The guidance issued by the Rules Committee says that following discussions with the Parliamentarian, “a live stream would meet the requirements for a public hearing. We have directed the SAA to provide a solution to the Senate community…that will offer virtual hearings that can be easily viewed by the American public.” We have checked with the Rules Committee and the Recording Studio and there are no technical or space issues that would prevent live video streaming. We note that other Senate committees which have held business meetings during the pandemic have also live video streamed their business meetings.

Thursday’s business meeting agenda includes votes on important nominees and on more than 25 pieces of legislation; the American public should be able to see their Senators debate and vote on these critical issues. We urge you, therefore, to live stream video for Thursday’s business meeting. 

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