Barr broke elections law, ethics groups say in call to impeach
By GREG FARRELL | Bloomberg | Published: October 12, 2020
Two groups promoting ethics in government called for the impeachment of U.S. Attorney General William Barr, accusing him of violating laws and undermining public confidence in the Justice Department.
Barr has used the department to further President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, a bipartisan group of lawyers from the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law at the University of Pennsylvania and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington said in a report released Monday, three weeks ahead of U.S. elections.
The authors warned that Barr’s appointment of U.S. Attorney John Durham to review the origins of the Russia investigation, and Barr’s willingness to discuss the investigation in news interviews, point to efforts to create a politically orchestrated “October surprise.” Such actions could violate the Hatch Act, which forbids government officials from using their offices to support a particular candidate in an election, they wrote.
The authors, some of whom held top legal and ethics posts in previous Republican and Democratic administrations, are the latest to raise concerns that Barr is pursuing an agenda of partisan politics and selective law enforcement. Earlier this month, 1,600 former Justice Department officials signed an open letter criticizing what they called Barr’s willingness to use the department to support Trump’s reelection effort. Although the Justice Department traditionally has kept live investigations under wraps, it recently advised prosecutors they could publicize investigations into election issues, including alleged ballot fraud.
“The working group came to the reluctant conclusion that Attorney General Barr is using the powers of the Department as a vehicle for supporting the political objectives of President Donald Trump,” they wrote. “It appears that the Department has transitioned from one that is subject to law, to become one that instead views the application of law as politically discretionary; moving from rule of law to rule by law.”
Barr has defended the propriety of the department’s work. Although he has echoed some of Trump’s election-related allegations, he also has come under fire from the president because Durham hasn’t produced bombshell prosecutions. Durham isn’t expected to issue charges nor to release a report before the election, a Justice Department official has said.
The Durham investigation is one of nine areas in which Barr’s conduct appeared to contradict the presumption that the Justice Department enforces the nation’s laws fairly and without political influence, the group said. In nearly 300 pages, they spelled out actions they said violated not only the Hatch Act but also obstruction-of-justice laws.
They focused on areas in which Barr’s conduct sparked widespread criticism, including the way in which they said he “intentionally mischaracterized” Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia report when he presented it to the American public.
They looked at Barr’s assignment of several U.S. attorneys, including Durham, to conduct counterinvestigations that the report says are “designed to discredit” the Russia probe and the Mueller Report.
The paper’s authors also looked the Justice Department’s involvement in Trump’s attempt to get the government of Ukraine to announce an investigation into the conduct of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden; the department’s “interference” in politically sensitive cases; Barr’s role in the deployment of federal agents and troops against protesters in Portland, Ore., and Washington D.C.’s Lafayette Square; and the Justice Department’s refusal to comply with subpoenas from the House of Representatives.The groups urged the House to open an impeachment inquiry into Barr over his refusal to comply with those subpoenas, among other issues.
“The conduct described in this report is more than enough to justify opening such an impeachment inquiry and we recommend that the House Judiciary Committee do so at once,” they wrote. “Potential charges include abuse of power, obstruction of Congress and obstruction of justice.”
The report’s authors include Claire Finkelstein, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law, or CERL; Richard Painter, who served as White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush; Virginia Canter, who was a White House associate counsel to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama; Stuart Gerson, who served in the Justice Department under presidents George H.W. Bush and Clinton; and Donald Ayer, who served in the Justice Department under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
CREW and CERL also recommended that Congress strengthen the independence of the Special Counsel statute, strengthen the legal protections for inspectors general and require all Justice Department attorneys to comply with ethics advice from the department’s own ethics officials.