Federal Employees News Digest

WH and attorneys—inside and outside of DOJ—under scrutiny

Two recent moves by government watchdog groups aim to throw light on what they see characterize as powerful conflicts of interest and indeed lawbreaking by the current head of the executive branch, in the use and management of lawyers inside and outside of the federal payroll.

First, a new report by the nonprofit Project On Government Oversight—POGO—puts the spotlight on the ethically and legally murky roles played by outside attorneys who represent President Trump—especially those who worked on his recent legal defense—and their crossing over into areas that should be managed in the day-to-day, mission-led work of attorneys working for agencies of the federal government.

The report, “All the President’s attorneys: Trump’s personal lawyers who pose ethics risks to the White House,” scrutinizes the work of Rudy Giuliani, Alan Dershowitz, Pam Bondi, Jay Sekulow and others, and offers evidence and argument that in numerous instances the attorneys have crossed the line on merely representing the president in the proper narrow lanes and legal issues they should be held to.

“These attorneys are facing questions ranging from controversies involving their current or recent clients, how they’re being compensated, and whether they may have violated tax law in their defense of the president,” the report said.

For example, the report said that Rudy Giuliani—who represented the president in his recent successful defense against removal from office—had “led a shadow diplomatic effort” to pressure a foreign government to provide the incumbent president an advantage in the 2020 presidential election, as enumerated in the impeachment and trial. But, the report noted, not only was the legality of this effort questionable, but the prominent attorney and former mayor of New York also may receive as-yet unreported compensation from other undisclosed outside persons, to finance the president’s defense, all under legally questionable agreements.

“The public should be able to trust that government work, including foreign diplomacy, is being conducted in their best interest—not one individual’s private financial interests and certainly not just the president’s political interests,” another nonprofit—the Campaign Legal Center through its legal counsel for ethics, Delaney Marsco, said in the POGO report. “With Giuliani, the public doesn’t have that clarity.”

Giuliani, the report noted, has said in the past that his work for the president was “free of charge”—yet there is evidence to the contrary, as cited in the report.

A second recent watchdog’s move—a legal complaint, filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW)—pushes back specifically on the White House’s power—inappropriate power, according to the nonprofit—over the Department of Justice.

CREW and other watchdogs have long noted that the president has sought to influence investigations and outcomes in various cases—criticizing federal civil servants in various legal field roles—including attorneys, investigators, FBI agents, and even judges. And he has accomplished this by having a very willing ally at the helm of DOJ.

“Since the beginning of his tenure at the Department of Justice, Attorney General [Bill] Barr has operated more as the president’s personal attorney than as the country’s chief law enforcement officer,” said Noah Bookbinder, CREW’s executive director.

Bookbinder, and his CREW complaint, directly criticize Barr’s involvement in the “Durham investigation,” an ongoing probe of the origins of Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections.

“Throughout the Durham investigation, Barr’s inflammatory language and disparaging comments have improperly sewn mistrust and doubt about the integrity of the Mueller investigation and may have tainted the fairness of the investigation.”

In many other cases handled by the Justice Department, as noted by CREW and in other media reports, Trump has put pressure—often publicly, in the form of tweets—on civil servants to provide outcomes that he favors in legal matters for generations handled without presidential commentary.

In this regard, as FEND went to press, a mass media event and public controversy broke out between Attorney General Bill Barr and President Trump. In an interview with a major news organization, Barr criticized the White House, specifically stating that Trump’s tweets on legal cases “make it impossible to do my job.” On Twitter, the president quickly pushed back against his usual ally, Attorney General Barr, stating that in fact he had not interfered with any DOJ legal cases.

Yet—adding greatly to the controversy—the president added that, in his opinion, legally speaking he could, if he wanted to.

“This doesn’t mean that I do not have, as President, the legal right to do so, I do, but I have so far chosen not to!” the President tweeted.

A White House statement further defended the president: “The president wasn’t bothered by the comments at all and he has the right, just like any American citizen, to publicly offer his opinions,” spokesperson Stephanie Grisham said.

A legal expert FEND spoke with sharply criticized the president’s statement.

“This is yet another illustration of this president undermining a norm that’s been in place for decades, or in fact, longer,” Michael LeRoy, a professor and expert on judicial ethics at the University of Illinois, told FEND. “There isn’t supposed to be any presidential involvement or interference in prosecutions by the Justice Department, period.”

But Leroy allowed that—possibly—and in his opinion, unfortunately, there may be room for legal argument on the matter.

“One problem for critics is that you can’t point to a specific law that the president is breaking here,” LeRoy said. “To date, no one had imagined that a president—any president—would tweet in this way, harassing a judge in an ongoing case. That wasn’t imagined.”

“Yet, it’s clear: This phenomenon of personally destructive tweeting, when it is directed at people of public responsibility, really undermines our democracy,” LeRoy said.

“Think about this: The judge that this president criticized this week—and clearly seeks to influence—in the Roger Stone sentencing case, was selected and put in that job and vetted by Congress, and is tasked to do a job, without interference,” LeRoy said. “If this—a president acting in this manner—becomes the new norm, then the U.S. will end up being not much different than a banana republic. This is, a country where whoever is the current strongman gets to take down institutions that are supposed to be politically neutral arbiters of the law.”

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