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White House blows off Issa subpoena to testify on possible political violations

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., listens to testimony on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 24, 2014, from panel of witnesses including Jennifer O’Connor of the Office of the White House Counsel who once worked at the IRS, during the committee's hearing on "IRS Obstruction: Lois Lerner’s missing e-mails." (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta\n

The Obama administration on Wednesday refused to send a senior White House official to testify before the House, even though House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) had issued a subpoena requiring him to appear.

The White House warned Issa late Tuesday that David Simas, director of the White House Office of Political Strategy and Outreach, would not be appearing. White House Counsel Neil Eggleston wrote that Simas is "immune" from any effort by Congress to compel him to testify.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., subpoenaed a White House official to appear Wednesday morning, but the official was no where to be found. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

"[T]he committee's effort to compel Mr. Simas's testimony threatens longstanding interests of the Executive Branch in preserving the president's independence and autonomy, as well as his ability to obtain candid advice and counsel to aid him in the discharge of his constitutional duties," Eggleston wrote.

"In light of those principles… Mr. Simas is immune from congressional compulsion to testify on matters relating to his official duties and will not appear at the July 16, 2014 hearing."

Issa said late Tuesday that he would hold the hearing in the hopes that Simas would appear, and when the hearing started Wednesday morning, Simas was not there. Issa started the hearing by saying he received Eggleston's "deeply disturbing" letter late Tuesday night, and argued that this decision goes against court rulings that say White House officials are not immune from having to appear before Congress.

"A federal judge wrote that senior advisers to the president of the United States are 'not absolutely immune from congressional process,' " Issa said.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the top Democrat on Issa's committee, accused Issa of abusing his subpoena power, and said a subpoena should only be issued if it's clear the subject of the subpoena has done something wrong.

"There must be a valid reason," Cummings said. "There must be a predicate, there must be a justification, some evidence that this official engaged in some type of inappropriate activity. That foundation simply does not exist."

Issa's hearing was aimed at learning more about whether the Obama administration violated the Hatch Act by re-opening a political office in the White House to help Democrats' campaign efforts. The Hatch Act limits political activities on government property or using government time.

Last week, Issa noted that President Barack Obama closed down the White House Office of Political Affairs in 2011, just before a report was issued saying the office violated the Hatch Act.

Issa says the new White House Office of Political Strategy and Outreach was opened in 2014, and that this new office is the same violation of the Hatch Act under a different name.

"In an effort to appease its political allies, the Obama administration broadcast its intention to re-open a political office within the White House to assist in partisan election efforts and fundraising," Issa said last week. "This follows a serious pattern of behavior at the highest levels of the administration."

In light of the decision not to send Simas, Issa recessed the hearing after he and Cummings spoke. It's unclear what steps Issa might take next, although it's possible he could seek a court decision to compel Simas to testify.

Read Eggleston's letter to Issa here:

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