Two Virgin Islanders are hoping to shape how a controversial House of Representatives committee investigates potential political abuses by the White House.
Formed in January, the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government aims to investigate how the executive branch of the federal government collections and uses information about U.S. citizens, and determine whether such efforts are illegal, unconstitutional, or otherwise unethical. The committee plans a report of its findings in January 2025.
The newly-elected Republican majority mandated the committee after former President Donald Trump and others claimed federal employees were secretly working against them. Their accusations of a Democrat-leaning “deep state” were widely parroted on popular political television and radio talk shows.
Majority Leader Steve Scalise said the committee was one of his party’s first priority, comparing it to the mid-1970s Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Activities, which investigated potential abuses by the Executive Branch from President Richard Nixon back to Harry S. Truman.
St. Croix attorney Gordon Rhea served as special assistant to the chief counsel of the so-called Church committee, led by Sen. Frank Church (D-ID). He told the Source Saturday that the committee’s credibility hinged on working in a non-partisan way. In doing so, the committee uncovered uncomfortable truths about unethical abuses by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Central Intelligence Agency and presented a 2,700-page report with bi-partisan authorship and support.
Rhea and 27 other former counsel and staff for the Church committee sent a letter to Weaponization committee Chair Jim Jordan (R-OH) hoping “this same spirit of cooperation and bipartisanship animate the investigative tasks upon which you and members of the Select Subcommittee have embarked.”
In the 1970s, Rhea was tasked with finding language for the committees reports that avoided even the hint of partisanship or political gamesmanship. Paired with Republican counterpart Joseph diGenova, Rhea said the two men were sometimes shut in a room and told “don’t come out until you come up with some language that we can all live with.”
“And that’s what we did. And I would hope that we’d see the same thing with this new committee. Although I’m quite concerned that we’re not gonna see it because it’s clearly one-sided, partisan, and is already sort of jumping into this sort of inflammatory language,” Rhea said.
Even the committee’s title is overtly provocative, he said, and hoped the committee would define what “weaponization” means in this context.
The Church committee found U.S. forces had conspired to kill the democratically-elected leader of the Republic of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba — who was assassinated in January 1961 — sought several times to kill Cuban leader Fidel Castro, and harassed Martin Luther King Jr. and others relentlessly.
Jordan has said the Weaponization committee is more interested in allegations of suppressed speech on social media, when and how abortion clinics and political leaders can be protested, and other culture-war touch points.
The nature of what is relevant to congressional inquiries, how it is presented, and even the definition of objective reality and truth have changed a lot since the 1970s, Rhea conceded.
“Well, I would hope that it would be nonpartisan, that it would operate in the world of facts,” Rhea said. “I think there’s a positive thing in asking the questions and having the investigations, but what you want is an investigation that’s a real investigation, not just a shouting match and a propaganda tool.”
The Virgin Islands’ Congressional Delegate, Stacey Plaskett, is one of the few Democrats on the Weaponization committee.
On Friday Plaskett introduced a bill with Rep. Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, a Republican from Puerto Rico, to step up efforts to stop narcotics smuggling between the Caribbean and the U.S. mainland. While Plaskett said she was “honored” to be working with her colleagues on the matter, the legislation’s sponsor in the Senate took a more partisan approach.
Florida Republican Rick Scott issued a statement claiming the border was “wide open” and pinned it on President Joe Biden.
“President Biden’s border crisis extends far beyond the Southwest border triggering violence across all communities,” Scott wrote.
Plaskett railed against such partisanship in the Weaponization committee too. When the committee subpoenaed officials from the Department of Justice, Department of Education, and the FBI, she called the move a publicity stunt and the furtherance of the Make America Great Again movement’s long-discredited allegation that the 2020 presidential election was rigged against Trump.
“The conspiracy theories underpinning today’s subpoenas have been debunked with facts time and time again, but Republicans do not want to be bothered by this inconvenient truth. There is no amount of documents that will satisfy the MAGA obsession with conspiracies,” Plaskett wrote Feb. 3. “While I am disappointed that Republicans have resorted to this type of aggressive arm-twisting and performative politics, I am confident that what they have asked for will once again disprove this tired right-wing theory. I and the Democratic members of the Subcommittee are ready to work on evidence-based inquiries, not wild conspiracy theories.”
Rhea said he thought Plaskett was the right person to represent Democrats and the Virgin Islands on the committee.
“If it turns out there are abuses, then I think the interesting question also is, what made them possible and what can we do to prevent them from happening in the future,” he said.
Rhea’s calls for non-partisan approach may not be heeded by those in Washington. Times have changed.
After the Church committee disbanded, Rhea and diGenova both served as federal prosecutors in Washington D.C. diGenova went on to be the U.S. Attorney in the District and Rhea moved to St. Croix to be Assistant United States Attorney.
Rhea has been in private practice in the territory since 1982 defending people accused of white-collar crimes.
diGenova has worked with Trump, Rudy Giuliani, and others in efforts to overturn the 2020 election. He was a regular commentator on Fox News and other conservative-leaning networks, claiming the FBI was unfairly targeting Trump in its investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, making fun of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s sexual assault accuser, and spreading anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about billionaire George Soros.
Times have changed. Rhea said, although he and diGenova disagreed on many things, there was a time when people with opposing views would work for the greater good in a cooperative fashion.
“You know, that was a time when you could be politically polarized on completely opposite sides and still be civil,” Rhea said.
diGenova did not sign the letter to the Weaponization committee asking for bipartisanship.