Senior FBI agent disputes some whistleblowers’ claims about Hunter Biden probe
The Washington Post September 12, 2023
The FBI agent overseeing the investigation of Hunter Biden disputed whistleblower claims that the prosecutor in charge of the probe was stymied by the Justice Department, according to the transcript of an interview with lawmakers that took place last week and was obtained by The Washington Post.
The question-and-answer session sheds additional light on the long-running investigation, which has become a focal point for Republican allegations of wrongdoing and corruption by President Biden and his family. The younger Biden is facing potential criminal charges for alleged tax and gun violations after the collapse of a plea deal in July. But GOP lawmakers have claimed for years that Hunter Biden’s alleged wrongdoing extends to efforts to use his father’s name and influence to get lucrative business deals overseas.
While no concrete evidence has surfaced to support such theories, the Republican claims are a key element of the impeachment inquiry of the president that the House launched Tuesday. In addition, Republicans pointed to allegations by two IRS whistleblowers that the Justice Department stymied aspects of the Hunter Biden probe.
The interview transcript obtained by The Post pushed back on some of those claims, specifically that Delaware U.S. Attorney David Weiss told investigators he did not have authority to bring certain criminal charges against the president’s son. But Thomas Sobocinski, who manages the FBI team involved in the investigation, agreed with the IRS whistleblowers that Weiss had moved slowly in making a charging decision.
Weiss was appointed as the top federal prosecutor in Delaware during the Trump administration, and launched the Hunter Biden investigation while Donald Trump was in the White House. Attorney General Merrick Garland, a Biden administration appointee, kept Weiss on so he could continue the probe and pledged to give him full decision-making authority.
After the plea deal collapsed in July amid a dispute between Weiss’s office and Hunter Biden’s lawyers over whether it gave the younger Biden immunity from additional potential charges, Weiss asked Garland to make him a special counsel in the probe, which gives him a greater degree of independence and allows him to seek indictments in jurisdictions outside Delaware.
Key parts of Sobocinski’s interview with lawmakers focused on an Oct. 7, 2022, meeting that Gary Shapley, one of the IRS whistleblowers, had earlier described to the lawmakers.
Shapley said Weiss told FBI and IRS agents during that meeting that Weiss was not the “deciding official on whether charges are filed.” But Sobocinski, who was also there, said he did not hear Weiss say that and “never felt that [Weiss] needed approval” to bring charges.
Sobocinski, who is the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Baltimore field office, noted there was “bureaucratic administrative process” Weiss had to work through to bring charges outside Delaware but that his understanding was “that [Weiss] had the authority to bring whatever he needed to do.”
“I never thought that anybody was there above David Weiss to say no,” he said. Pressed again on the issue later in the interview, he said, “I went into that meeting believing he had the authority, and I have left that meeting believing he had the authority to bring charges.”
In the Justice Department, U.S. attorneys do not file charges outside of their jurisdiction without the involvement of the local federal prosecutor’s office. However, in the Hunter Biden case, Garland has insisted that Weiss could have sought a special-attorney designation — which is different from being named special counsel — to do so.
Sobocinski said he had no awareness of several other claims Shapley made about the Oct. 7 meeting, including that Weiss informed the group that U.S. District Attorney for D.C. Matthew Graves would not allow Weiss to charge Hunter Biden with tax violations in the nation’s capital.
But he added that he while he had a “very high-level sense of IRS charges,” he was not tracking the “minutia” of tax law nor the statute of limitations that was set to lapse on Hunter Biden’s 2014 and 2015 tax returns. Sobocinski also said that he did not take any notes during the Oct. 7 meeting or send emails about it afterward. Shapley, in contrast, memorialized his takeaways from the meeting in notes and an email later that day.
Asked whether he felt that his recollections about the Oct. 7 meeting differed from Shapley’s account, Sobocinski said he did, adding that he had conversations with “various members of the team” about the discrepancies.
“I wanted to make sure that if my team felt that there was any difference in — if they view this differently, then that becomes an operational matter for me to want to get — getting resolution,” he told investigators.
A spokesman for Empower Oversight, the nonprofit whistleblower assistance group representing Shapley, defended Shapley’s recollection of the meeting.
“Unfortunately, we haven’t seen the leaked transcript, which makes it difficult to comment,” the spokesman wrote in a statement.
“While it’s not unusual for people to have slightly different recollections of the same event, in this case, SSA Shapley took notes in real-time and that day emailed his summary of the meeting to several people, including his supervisor who contemporaneously corroborated his account — which is all very different from trying to recall information a year later with no notes.”
A spokesman for the Justice Department declined to comment. A spokesman for Weiss declined to comment.
A spokesman for House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) did not speak to Sobocinski’s testimony specifically but said Shapley and a second IRS whistleblower, Joseph Ziegler, “have been wholly consistent throughout their disclosures to Congress.” Sobocinski, who joined the Hunter Biden investigation in 2021, said that he had no awareness or recollection of conversations in which FBI officials working on the case lobbied for the appointment of a special counsel — another Ziegler allegation.
A lawyer for Ziegler did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Sobocinski did tell the committee that he wanted Weiss to make a charging decision sooner. Throughout the interview, he expressed frustration with the pace and length of the investigation.
The Post reported a day before the Oct. 7 meeting that investigators believed there was enough evidence to charge Hunter Biden with tax and gun crimes. But no charging decision came until the plea agreement was announced in June.
Sobocinski said the intense public interest in the case, and the public identification of some of the agents involved, led FBI agents and their families, including his own, to worry about their safety.
“I now have FBI employees that, names are out there,” Sobocinski said, referring to the release of paperwork and testimony in the case. “I have FBI employees and former FBI retired agents who’ve served for 20-plus years whose parents are getting phone calls, whose photos with their girlfriends, who their children, who are being followed. That is not something that we were prepared for, and I was concerned about having that continue or expand to other one of my employees.”
Sobocinski continues to work on the Hunter Biden investigation, which makes his interview with the House committee highly unusual. The Justice Department allows such sessions so as not to jeopardize the integrity of an investigation that is still underway. At the start of the interview, a Justice Department attorney who accompanied Sobocinski said he was authorized to discuss the Oct. 7 meeting and Weiss’s authority to seek charges against Biden, but would not answer questions that would compromise the criminal probe.
Perry Stein contributed to this report.