A House hearing into appearances of political favoritism in a Department of Homeland Security-run investor-visa program led to tense exchanges between Democratic and Republican lawmakers Thursday, but also to some conciliatory notes.
The House Homeland Security Committee session explored a DHS inspector general report released last month which found that numerous employees working on the investor visa program felt that politically-connected applications got special treatment after interventions by then U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Alejandro Mayorkas.
The report drew particular attention because the Democratic luminaries pressuring the department included Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and businessman Tony Rodham, a brother of presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The first dust-up at the hearing came early on, when Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) swore Mayorkas in. Rep. Bonnie Watson-Coleman (D-N.J.) objected, arguing that a double standard was at work because Inspector General John Roth was not sworn in when he testified before the same panel last month.
"I'm just interested in consistency," Watson-Coleman insisted, although she also criticized Roth's report as "limited and very myopic."
Ranking Democrat Bennie Thompson (D-Ga.) also noted that witnesses can be prosecuted for false testimony to Congress regardless of whether they're under oath.
However, McCaul said it was "entirely appropriate" to swear in Mayorkas, who now serves as deputy secretary at DHS. "I think the American people expect this," the chairman said.
Mayorkas defended his decision to intervene in the investor visa cases cited in the IG report, but he denied he changed any outcomes due to political pressure. He called the investor visa program, also known as EB-5, "the most complex" program USCIS runs and said it was simply getting a lot of decisions wrong.
"The agency was too often misapplying the law and issuing unsound rulings," Mayorkas said. "I became involved because it was ultimately my responsibility to ensure that cases were being decided correctly under the law ... We were administering the EB-5 program poorly and that was the view from every quarter."
Mayorkas said he was committed to creating both a reality and a perception that cases were being treated equally, but in retrospect he could have done more to make sure his colleagues did not conclude that politics were affecting the treatment of specific applications.
"I thought I had taken steps to guard against this very possibility. Even an appearance of impropriety is not acceptable to me," he said. "I regret the perception my own involvement created ... I do regret the perception that my activities created and I take responsibility for those perceptions."
Questioned by Republicans about his involvement in the three cases highlighted in the IG report, Mayorkas could not recall some details about his interactions, but he said many of the direct meetings he had with people involved in the projects were at the request of officials in the office of then-Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano.
"I believe, in my judgment, in reviewing this matter and the responses you've given today, not really being able to respond specifically, that your actions in these cases create at least, at a minimum, the perception of special access and political favoritism," McCaul said. "In my judgment, you also violated your own ethics policy."
Democrats pointed out that many of the projects seeking investor-visa funding were the subject of inquiries and pressure from both Republicans and Democrats. Thompson said Mississippi Republicans like former Gov. Haley Barbour, Sen. Roger Wicker and Sen. Thad Cochran had all pressed immigration authorities to green light the same electric-car project McAuliffe and Rodham were backing.
The "IG report gives you the impression that only Democrats contacted the agency," Thompson said.
While there was another partisan rumble after Watson-Coleman accused McCaul of giving her less questioning time than other members received, comity seemed to improve as the two-hour long hearing progressed.
Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) implied Mayorkas may not have handled the investor-visa cases in an ideal way. "Very often, perception becomes reality," she said.
Rice then made the provocative suggestion that members of Congress might actually be primarily responsible for what happened.
"The more relevant question...that we have to ask on this committee, maybe we do it in closed session, is do these phone calls we all make to various federal agencies inquiring about specific issues, is that a negative perception, right there, and should we not do that? Or can we figure out a way that we can serve our constituents because that's what these phone calls do, in a non-partisan way because Republicans and Democrats both do it and do it in a way that makes sure the perception is not misconstrued and there's transparency?" she asked. "I just throw that out there."
As the session drew to a close., Mayorkas sounded even more contrite, saying, "I bear responsibility for the perception of my employees. I acknowledge that.
And, despite the kerfuffle over swearing Mayorkas in, McCaul seemed satisified that the official had testified truthfully. "I thank the witness for your candor as well as your honesty," McCaul said just before he brought down the gavel.