What is the Penalty for Refusing a Congressional Subpoena?
Receiving a congressional subpoena for you or our business can make it seem like everything you worked so hard to build could soon collapse. Your first instinct might be to postpone your response. And then perhaps you think it is best to ignore the congressional subpoena altogether. If you don’t respond, maybe it will go away. Maybe Congress will turn their attention elsewhere and won’t pursue you anymore.
This is the worst thing you can do – perhaps even worse than receiving the subpoena.
If you’ve received a congressional subpoena, contact the law office of Oberheiden, P.C. Our attorneys have an extensive background in assisting clients with congressional subpoenas. Oberheiden P.C. is a leading law firm with hard-working defense attorneys and skilled former government attorneys. We have years of experience in defending our clients against governmental inquiries. We will advise and help you with your response to the subpoena, gathering of documents, preparation for testimony, or narrowing the scope of the inquiry.
Contact us today for a free consultation to learn how we can help get your life back on track!
Congressional Investigations & Congressional Subpoenas: What Are They?
A congressional subpoena is an order requiring an individual or business to produce specific documents, records, or data files or to answer questions. A congressional subpoena is issued by a committee or subcommittee of either the House of Representatives or the Senate during a congressional investigation.
Congressional investigations aid Congress in exercising its legislative function. Such investigations enable it to enact new or amend current legislation and to oversee the efficiency of federal programs. Topics of the investigations also vary from the financial industry, Big Tech, and political corruption. Congressional inquiries in the House of Representatives can also be opened pursuant to the impeachment power.
The U.S. Constitution does not confer any investigatory powers to Congress. However, historical precedent dates back to the early 1790s when the House of Representatives initiated a congressional investigation into the executive branch regarding General St. Clair’s defeat in the Northwest Territory [which is present-day Ohio]. Further, the judiciary branch upheld Congress’s investigatory power with a U.S. Supreme Court decision about one hundred years ago. The Supreme Court deemed the justification for such a power to be that Congress needs to obtain certain information to carry out the powers given to it in the Constitution. Thus, as long as the subject of the congressional inquiry is based on a legislative function possessed by Congress, then the inquiry is valid.
Practically, the test is a low bar to meet. Therefore, most congressional investigations are legitimate, and the subpoenas need to be adhered to.
What are the Consequences for Refusing to Comply with a Congressional Subpoena?
After receiving a subpoena you may feel like there is a difficult battle ahead to keep your livelihood afloat. You might want to fight the subpoena and ignore it. If you refuse to comply with a congressional subpoena, you must know that there are consequences to your actions. Congress has three different paths it can take to force compliance. The justification for such measures is that noncompliance with a congressional subpoena obstructs Congress’s ability to carry out its legislative functions.
1. Congress’s Inherent Contempt Power
Under Congress’s inherent contempt power, it may take an individual into custody and detain them for not complying with the congressional subpoena. Those individuals would then be tried at the bar by the House of Representatives or the Senate and (if decided) detained until they complied with the subpoena (but generally not beyond the session of Congress). The Supreme Court has permitted this power as long as Congress was acting within its legislative jurisdiction. If Congress investigates something beyond its legislative function, courts will overrule the detainment and order that the individual be released. It should be noted that Congress has not used this option since 1935.
2. Prosecution Under Criminal Contempt Statute
Another avenue Congress can take is statutory criminal contempt. If you do not comply with the congressional subpoena, Congress can forward the case to the Department of Justice and recommend criminal charges be brought against you for noncompliance with the subpoena.
In other words, if you refuse to testify or produce any requested documents, Congress can forward your case to the United States Attorney’s Office in the DOJ. If you are prosecuted and convicted, the criminal statute for refusal to comply with a congressional subpoena before the committee of either House can result in the following punishment:
- Fined not more than $1,000, but not less than $100 AND
- Imprisonment in a common jail for at least one month, but not more than 12 months
This is considered a misdemeanor. However, note that the DOJ has no obligation to prosecute you for noncompliance. Prosecutions are the sole responsibility of the executive branch. All Congress can do is recommend your case, but criminal prosecution is at the discretion of the DOJ.
3. Civil Enforcement
Congress’s third option is to go to the judiciary to enforce the congressional subpoena. The congressional committee would then file suit in the district court for an order declaring the person be legally obligated to respond to the subpoena.
Under a statute, if the congressional investigation originated in the Senate or a committee or subcommittee in the Senate, then the Senate can adopt a resolution to bring a civil action against the person non-complying with the order. Despite no specific statute, if the congressional investigation originated in the House or a committee or subcommittee of the House, then Congress can still bring a civil enforcement action against them.
Mistake in Congressional Testimony Lawyer
What are Other Consequences of Noncompliance with a Subpoena?
Make no mistake that Congress’s method of enforcement of its subpoena can have devastating effects on your business.
A referral for criminal charges will negatively affect your business and trigger an even worse reputation fallout. And getting tied up in a civil action in court could take years. Bad press is notoriously unforgiving. You do not want to risk you and your company’s reputation and goodwill.
Instead, get in touch with our attorneys today and we will help protect your livelihood and prevent your reputation from the blemish of a congressional inquiry.
Contact Oberheiden, P.C. for a Free Consultation!
At Oberheiden, PC., we are well-versed in not just the law, but also the political nuances of Congress. We know how Congress operates. Every committee in both the House of Representatives and the Senate has its own rules. Their procedures are tricky – but our attorneys and professionals are very knowledgeable and informed! Our dedicated team will go the extra mile to protect you, your rights, your business, and your reputation. Contact us today!