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Congresswoman Harman accused of taking favors for pressuring Justice Department

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A political watchdog group wants Congress to look into House member Jane Harman. It says the South Bay Democrat tried to slow down a federal investigation in exchange for help in securing a committee chairmanship. KPCC's Washington Correspondent Kitty Felde reports.

Kitty Felde: "Congressional Quarterly" says the supposed deal was caught on a National Security Agency wiretap four years ago. It says there's a recording of Congresswoman Jane Harman telling an Israeli agent she'll "waddle into" a Justice Department case.

"Congressional Quarterly" says Harman agreed to try to get espionage charges reduced against two former members of a pro-Israeli lobbying group. The report says that in exchange, the agent would lobby Nancy Pelosi to give Harman the chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee.

Melanie Sloan: This is bad on several different levels.

Felde: Melanie Sloan is executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Sloan: If, in fact, she made that call, asking that the charges be reduced because she wanted the chairmanship of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, not only would she be guilty of bribery, she also has taken political gamesmanship to a whole new level. She's willing to trade a criminal investigation for a committee chairmanship.

Felde: The "Congressional Quarterly" says the FBI investigated Harman's involvement, but dropped the case near the end of 2005 at the request of then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The publication says Gonzales needed Harman to defend the Bush Administration's much-criticized program of wiretapping individuals without getting warrants first.

Harman issued a statement that called the "Congressional Quarterly" story "recycled" material. She said she never contacted the Justice Department about its investigation into two pro-Israeli lobbyists.

Melanie Sloan with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington says her group wants the Justice Department – with a new attorney general in charge – to investigate.

Sloan: President Obama has had this view that we don't want to look back, we only want to look forward. And this is definitely looking back because once again, we're looking at an overly politicized Department of Justice.

That Alberto Gonzales would have dumped an investigation into a member of Congress for the political aim of having Jane Harman there to help defend the administration's wiretapping program is again using the department for purely political purposes. And that's very distressing.

Felde: Melanie Sloan says that along with a Justice Department investigation, the Office of Congressional Ethics within the House of Representatives should look into whether Harman tried to scuttle a federal investigation as a way to win support for a committee chairmanship.

As it turned out – Harman didn't get to head up the House Intelligence Committee chairmanship. She instead chairs the Intelligence Subcommittee on the House Homeland Security Committee.