Bribes For Presidential Pardons Scheme Investigated by DOJ
U.S. prosecutors are investigating whether several individuals offered political contributions in exchange for a presidential pardon, according to an unsealed court document. Bribes For Presidential Pardons Scheme Investigated by DOJ
The names of the people under investigation were blacked out in the document.
The partially redacted opinion unsealed on Tuesday by U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell in Washington said the Justice Department was investigating a “bribery conspiracy” in which an unnamed person would “offer a substantial political contribution in exchange for a presidential pardon or reprieve of sentence.”
The Justice Department was also investigating whether two unnamed individuals had acted as lobbyists to White House officials without complying with registration requirements, Howell, the court’s chief judge, wrote.
The opinion, dated Aug. 28, was in response to a government request to review attorney-client communications related to the probe.
The judge wrote that the scheme involved “intermediaries to deliver the proposed bribe,” and noted that the government hoped to present the evidence it had gathered to three unnamed individuals, at least one of whom is a lawyer.
Howell’s opinion provides few other details about the possible bribery scheme, and no one appears to have been charged as part of the investigation. But, according to the opinion, the person seeking a pardon surrendered to the custody of the Bureau of Prisons, suggesting that person has already been convicted of a crime.
‘Who Is It?’
“The $10,000 question is — who is it?,” said former federal prosecutor Jennifer Rodgers. “Is it someone who would be in a position to implicate the president in anything?”
She said she didn’t think that was necessarily the case because President Donald Trump has proven himself eager to help out the people closest to him — or those who pose a possible threat — so no bribe would be necessary.
No government official was or is currently a subject or target of the investigation disclosed in the court filing today, a Justice Department official said.
The origins of the probe appear to lie in a separate investigation that the Justice Department was pursuing before it unearthed evidence of bribery.
Using search warrants issued in that separate inquiry, the government seized more than 50 “digital media devices,” including iPhones, iPads, laptops, thumb drives and computer and external hard drives, according to Howell’s opinion. Emails recorded on those devices provided evidence of the bribery scheme, the judge said.
The government asked Howell to allow investigators to access communications that might be shielded from scrutiny by attorney-client privilege. In the unsealed opinion, Howell agreed to allow the government to examine those communications, ruling that the documents at issue are “not protected by the attorney-client or any other privilege.”
“This political strategy to obtain a presidential pardon was ‘parallel’ to and distinct from [redacted’s] role as an attorney-advocate for [redacted],” the judge wrote.
Offering pardons for campaign contributions would be a crime, said Harry Sandick, a former federal prosecutor in New York.
“While the presidential pardon power is absolute, selling pardons is prohibited by federal bribery law,” Sandick said in an interview. “This investigation may well linger into the next administration.”
Since the election, lawyers and lobbyists across the country have mobilized on behalf of a wide range of clients to secure pardons in the final days of Trump’s presidency. On Nov. 25, Trump pardoned his former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, who has twice pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. Many more pardons are expected in the coming weeks.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani discussed with him as recently as last week the possibility of receiving a pre-emptive pardon before Trump leaves office.
Now-Deceased Billionaire Prompted Bribery-for-Pardon Investigation
California billionaire GOP donor enlisted Washington lawyer Abbe Lowell to push for friend’s pardon with White House.
A California billionaire gave $333,800 to Republican Party accounts in 2016 and then enlisted the help of Abbe Lowell, a prominent Washington lawyer, to push White House officials to recommend a pardon for a friend, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
Sanford Diller, a philanthropist, was seeking the pardon of Hugh Baras, a California psychologist who was sentenced in 2014 to more than two years in prison for tax evasion and theft of government property, and said it was the one favor he sought in exchange for his donations, the documents reviewed by the Journal show.
The matter drew the attention of federal investigators. A court filing in federal district court in Washington unsealed earlier this week indicated that communications involving Mr. Lowell were at issue in an investigation of an alleged “secret lobbying scheme” and potential bribery in exchange for the pardon.
The court filing was heavily redacted but the roles of Mr. Lowell and Mr. Diller were confirmed this week by people familiar with the case and documents reviewed by the Journal. Their identities were earlier reported by the New York Times.
The Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section was investigating the case, according to people familiar with the investigation, and its status is unknown. The Justice Department declined to comment.
“It is my understanding that the Justice Department had and has absolutely no quarrel with anything that Abbe did in this matter,” an attorney for Mr. Lowell, Reid Weingarten, said, adding: “There was no bribe, there was no clemency, this is what the prosecutors concluded and this entire matter is much ado about nothing.”
The White House declined to comment. Mr. Diller died in 2018. His son, Bradley, declined to comment.
A lawyer who represented Mr. Baras in his criminal case said his client was the victim of an unjust prosecution but declined to comment beyond the public legal filings. Prosecutors haven’t contacted Mr. Baras as part of the investigation, said the lawyer, who also said he wasn’t involved in any of the pardon work.
No pardon or clemency was given to Mr. Baras, who was released having served his prison sentence last year. Those seeking pardons frequently enlist the help of lawyers and others they believe can influence a decision at the White House.
This case and documents reviewed by the Journal show how a wealthy donor sought to tie a major donation in an election year to the granting of a presidential pardon for a friend and also engaged the help of a top Washington lawyer to seek the pardon.
In December 2016, according to documents reviewed by the Journal, Mr. Lowell and Mr. Diller discussed contacting top officials in the incoming administration. Shortly after the inauguration Mr. Lowell told Mr. Diller he had relayed a memo and supporting materials for the clemency request to the White House Counsel’s Office, the documents show.
“Abbe did what lawyers do, he got the facts, he researched the law, and put together a summary and submitted it to the appropriate government lawyers,” Mr. Weingarten said.
Mr. Baras had exhausted his appeals by early 2017, and was facing an approaching date to surrender to the Bureau of Prisons.
Mr. Diller hoped to get a grant of clemency for his friend, helping Mr. Baras—who was 74 at the time and has several chronic health challenges—avoid prison time, the documents show.
As part of the federal probe, government investigators received permission from a federal judge to review communications that included those of Mr. Lowell, according to the court filing.
Typically, all communications involving lawyers and their clients are protected from disclosure to government investigators.
However, the government argued to U.S. District Court Judge Beryl Howell that the communications were exempt because they potentially contained both evidence of crimes and involved nonlawyer third parties. In an opinion dated Aug. 28 but released this week, Judge Howell agreed.
Mr. Diller was connected to Mr. Lowell shortly after the 2016 election through Elliott Broidy, who had been a top fundraiser for Mr. Trump during the campaign, the documents show. Mr. Diller also offered to pay the legal fees associated with seeking a pardon for Mr. Baras, according to the documents.
Mr. Lowell is one of Washington’s most prominent defense lawyers. He was the top lawyer to House Democrats during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. He later represented President Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner, both advisers to the president, in the congressional and federal investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
In February 2017, Mr. Diller told Mr. Broidy he was dismayed by a lack of follow-through on the effort to obtain a pardon for Mr. Baras. Mr. Diller highlighted his history of major donations, according to the documents, and mentioned a recent conversation he’d had with the president. It was unclear from the documents whether he had raised the pardon issue with Mr. Trump.
In the legal filing before Judge Howell, prosecutors indicated they were probing alleged violations of the Lobbying Disclosure Act as well as bribery allegations. The law requires public registration from advocates looking to advance the interests of clients to federal officials.
In its 25-year history, it has rarely been enforced with criminal penalties. This year the Justice Department brought its first such criminal case alleging violations of the law, though the department previously has sought to level civil fines on those who flout its requirements.
A lawyer for Mr. Broidy, William Burck, said in a statement: “Mr. Broidy was asked by Mr. Diller to refer him to a DC lawyer who could assist on a clemency petition. Mr. Broidy sent him to Abbe Lowell. That’s not lobbying, and Mr. Broidy is not under investigation and has not been accused by anyone of any wrongdoing whatsoever.”