A top aide to Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin supplied an answer last year to a thorny question a friendly witness would face the next day at a pivotal hearing on for-profit colleges, raising questions of witness tampering, an email obtained by The Daily Caller shows.
As Harkin prepares for another event on the same subject at 2:00 p.m. today, the email raises fresh concerns about the senator’s committee conduct after he recently faced accusations from Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigators that he pressured them on an error-ridden report unveiled at the very same hearing.
That Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) hearing on Aug. 4, 2010 provided crucial momentum to a push by the Obama administration for strict new regulations on the for-profit sector that were finalized June 2.
Josh Pruyn, a former official at a for-profit school, testified then that he was “disillusioned” with the high-pressure sales techniques he said he saw used to enroll students at Westwood College online.
In advance of the hearing, representatives for for-profit, or “career,” colleges suggested there were ties between Pruyn and the James Hoyer Investigative Law Firm, which “has tried to make a business of suing” for-profit colleges, in the words of the sector’s top lobbyist in an email at the time.
Any connection between Pruyn and the law firm could have undermined his credibility as a witness before Harkin’s committee, so Harkin staffer Ryan McCord took action.
“In order to get out ahead of this issue we might have the chairman straight up ask you if you’re suing Westwood,” McCord wrote in an Aug. 3, 2010 email.
“It’s fine to say something along the lines of ‘I am not suing Westwood. I felt strongly that the culture at the school was unethical. I have a journalist friend who was interested in writing a story about for-profit schools. Through him I talked to a few reporters and lawyers at a law firm that was representing Westwood students. So my name has been in the news a few times, but I have never sued or wanted to sue the school,'” McCord wrote.
The next day at the hearing, when Harkin asked as expected whether Pruyn was suing Westwood, Pruyn answered almost exactly as McCord had suggested he should.
“I’m not, no. After I left Westwood I had obvious ethical concerns about them and I talked to a friend of mine who is a freelance journalist and in the course of his research uncovered a law firm that was investigating the school. And through him they had contacted me but I’m not suing Westwood, nor do I have plans to,” Pruyn said at the hearing.
In advance of congressional hearings, committee staff often interact with “friendly” witnesses, or those people who share the chairman’s views and whose testimony helps bolster those views.
But to supply such a specific answer to a factual question in an investigative hearing is highly unusual and raises questions about how aggressively Harkin and his staff pulled the strings behind the hearing.
Justine Sessions, a spokeswoman for Harkin, said the “draft response” suggested by McCord, still a committee aide to Harkin, “was simply a reiteration of what the witness had told our staff previously.”
“This email was to make the witness aware that the question would be asked,” Sessions said, adding that Harkin places a special importance on witnesses before his committee disclosing any “financial interests or motivations they may have in testifying.”
But the unusual interaction between McCord and Pruyn is not the first time Harkin has faced question about his aggressive investigation of the for-profit schools.
As reported by TheDC, Harkin recently faced charges, in an internal evaluation by GAO officials, that pressure from his office resulted in some of the GAO’s “most obvious inaccuracies” in its report on the for-profit schools.
The evaluation said “congressional staff” demanded the inclusion of numerous details in the report and, facing the “extreme short time frames” given to complete it, GAO “stretched whatever we could find” to fill in a key detail.
“They wouldn’t have included those references unless they felt bullied,” one former GAO official told TheDC.
Harkin and his staff angrily denied the accusations.
Ed. note: this article originally said Harkin is holding a “hearing” at 2:00 p.m. today. The event is a “roundtable.”