Tom Harkin has conducted a crusade against for-profit colleges and universities — and unfortunately for him, his staff has left a paper trail.  The Daily Caller’s Jonathan Strong got his hands on an e-mail from Harkin aide Ryan McCord, in which McCord strategized with a witness on one of Harkin’s upcoming questions in a Congressional hearing:

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.

Congressional testimony is different from courtroom testimony and depositions, but some of the same rules apply.  For instance, one cannot lie under oath without risking a perjury charge, and one cannot defy a subpoena without risking a contempt prosecution, either.  In a criminal court case, coaching witnesses would be a flagrant violation — but one that occurs on a rather regular basis, too.  It’s probably even more prevalent in civil cases, and it can also be called preparing one’s witnesses.

Did this cross the line into tampering?  That’s probably more of a legal judgment, but giving a question and then dictating the answer doesn’t look very good — especially if the answer isn’t entirely accurate.  A lack of accuracy has already been a problem with Harkin’s probe of the for-profit schools, for which the GAO rebuked Harkin and his staff after an investigation into the composition of a key report.

Politically, though, this looks pretty bad.  How many other Harkin witnesses have been reading from a script?