Members of the House select committee investigating the January 6 attack on the US Capitol have shown they’re willing to pursue criminal contempt referrals against witnesses who refuse to comply with the panel’s subpoenas.
But what does criminal contempt mean?
Criminal contempt is one of the three options the congressional panel can pursue to enforce its subpoenas, along with civil and inherent contempt.
In the first test of the panel’s willingness to pursue such a referral, the committee voted unanimously Tuesday evening to refer Trump ally Steve Bannon to the Justice Department for criminal contempt charges after he refused to comply with a subpoena deadline.
“It’s a shame that Mr. Bannon has put us in this position. But we won’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, said ahead of the vote. “We believe Mr. Bannon has information relevant to our probe, and we’ll use the tools at our disposal to get that information.”
The panel had sent him a letter on Friday rejecting his argument for failing to comply while dismissing his claim of executive privilege, particularly as it relates to his communications with individuals other than former President Trump, according to a copy obtained by CNN.
Now that the criminal contempt referral of Bannon has cleared the committee, it heads to the House for a vote. If that vote succeeds, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi certifies the report to the United States attorney for the District of Columbia.
Here are some more key things to know about criminal contempt:
Under law, this certification then requires the United States attorney to “bring the matter before the grand jury for its action,” but the Justice Department will also makes its own determinations for prosecuting.
Any individual who is found liable for contempt of Congress is then guilty of a crime that may result in a fine and between one and 12 months imprisonment. But this process is rarely invoked and rarely leads to jail time.
As severe as a criminal contempt referral sounds, the House’s choice to use the Justice Department may be more of a warning shot than a solution. Holding a person in criminal contempt through a prosecution could take years, and historic criminal contempt cases have been derailed by appeals and acquittals.