December 05, 2018

Wyden Presses Justice Department on Whitaker, Benczkowski Conflicts of Interest

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden is asking the Department of Justice to detail its handling of the serious financial, professional, and political conflicts of interest of Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker and Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division, Brian Benczkowski. 

In a letter this week signed by 10 other senators, Wyden noted that the two officials’ activities before arriving at the Justice Department present ethical concerns that agency ethics officials have not yet fully resolved and memorialized.  Despite repeated requests for ethics records by members of Congress, and growing concern with the influence Whitaker and Benczkowski have over highly sensitive Justice Department work like Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, the Justice Department has not been forthcoming. 

To maintain the public’s trust in an impartial DOJ, we urge you to provide prompt, complete, and public responses to the issues we raise,” the senators wrote to the Justice Department’s Assistant Attorney General for Administration and Designated Agency Ethics Official and Professional Responsibility Advisory Office. “The impartiality and credibility of DOJ’s leadership are of national importance.”

According to financial disclosures, Whitaker has accepted more than $1.2 million in compensation as executive director of the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT), an organization that filed at least 14 complaints in recent years against Democratic politicians, and has spent thousands of dollars on contracts with conservative political attack groups.  FACT has received at least $2.45 million from the secretive DonorsTrust, which has been described as “the dark-money ATM for the right.” 

Whitaker also allegedly accepted campaign donations this year – while serving as a senior Justice Department official – to a campaign committee he used for a 2014 run for U.S. Senate.  In response to complaints by Senator Whitehouse and others, the United States Office of Special Counsel has opened an independent investigation into whether this conduct violated the Hatch Act. 

Benczkowski, while serving in private legal practice, represented Alfa Bank, a Russian bank implicated in possible coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russian government during the 2016 presidential campaign.  As head of the Criminal Division, Benczkowski is in position to learn details about numerous highly sensitive Justice Department investigations and prosecutions – access that is particularly troubling given his political connections in the Trump administration.  The Justice Department has written to senators that Benczkowski is recused from matters involving previous clients, but has not provided details of his recusals.

In addition to Wyden, the letter was signed by Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Chris Coons (D-DE), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Kamala Harris (D-CA)

The entire letter is available here.