Assistant Attorney General with Ties to Russian Bank Recused from Mueller Investigation

Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker’s position at the Department of Justice continues to draw scrutiny from both Congress and watchdog groups, as does that of Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski, who previously represented the Russian entity Alfa Bank and has been screened off from the special counsel investigation into Russian election interference.

On Wednesday, American Oversight filed a new Freedom of Information Act request for DOJ documents regarding Whitaker’s appointment. The day before, Senate Democrats sent a letter to the DOJ asking for information about the treatment of Whitaker’s financial and political conflicts of interest. In the letter, the senators also noted that the DOJ had provided insufficient information about Benczkowski.

At the time of his confirmation in July, senators voiced concern about Benczkowski’s ties to Alfa Bank, which is owned by oligarchs connected to the Russian government. American Oversight began looking into Benczkowski’s ethics determinations in the following months, and last week received documents in response to a September FOIA request for records about any of his recusals and ethics waivers.

The documents contain communications between the DOJ and senators including Dick Durbin and Sheldon Whitehouse. Durbin and Whitehouse relate their concern over the possibility that Benczkowski could exercise, or appear to exercise, an undue influence over actions taken by the special counsel. The most recent letter contained in the documents comes from Assistant Attorney General Stephen E. Boyd on October 18, who told the senators that Benczkowski “requested to be—and is currently—screened off from any matters regarding Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, including any prosecutions arising from the investigation.”

American Oversight also received a copy of Benczkowski’s ethics compliance form, dated October 9, which indicates he received authorization to participate in certain matters related to a “former client.” This week’s letter from Senate Democrats requested more information about this authorization, saying that what they had received from DOJ was too heavily redacted and that the White House usually made such authorizations public.

The senators also focused on Whitaker’s delayed financial disclosures as well as his past work as the executive director of the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, a conservative group with undisclosed funding. After Whitaker’s appointment, American Oversight began digging into his political and financial conflicts of interest, seeking his recusals and ethics determinations as well as any communications between him and the White House regarding the Mueller investigation.

As news broke last week that President Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress, it was revealed by the Washington Post that Whitaker had been informed in advance of Cohen’s plea deal. It would be unusual for Whitaker to receive this sort of advance notice without having been cleared by the Ethics Office to participate in matters relating to the Mueller investigation. Prior to his appointment as chief of staff to then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Whitaker publicly criticized the investigation, calling it “ridiculous.”