Conspiracy, Hired Gunman Cited in Prosecutor’s Killing

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is due in Seattle to discuss new evidence in the 16-year investigation of a federal prosecutor’s murder. Thomas Wales may have been the first U.S. prosecutor in history to be slain in the line of duty.

The FBI has found evidence suggesting that the fatal shooting of Seattle federal prosecutor Thomas Wales in 2001 involved a conspiracy and a hired gunman, the Seattle Times reports. Agents had pursued a single-shooter theory and focused on a former  airline pilot who has long been a leading suspect. An FBI official said there is a “very small group” of people who know what happened. “They never talk about it,” the official said. The pilot, whom Wales had prosecuted in a bitterly fought fraud case, has maintained his innocence.

While the first-time disclosure that multiple people might be involved represents a major step in the investigation, the official cautioned that agents have yet to develop sufficient evidence to bring criminal charges. The U.S. Justice Department has scheduled a news conference in Seattle for Wednesday. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is expected to make the agency’s most extensive comments on the case since Attorney General Eric Holder spoke at the 10-year anniversary of the shooting. Wales, 49, was working as a white-collar criminal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office when he was shot several times while sitting at a computer in the basement of his home on Oct. 11, 2001. If Wales was killed because of his work, he would be the first federal prosecutor in the nation’s history to be slain in the line of duty.


No Director Yet for DOJ’s Violence Against Women Office

The opening is glaring as the White House is accused of a botched response to revelations that former senior presidential aide Rob Porter assaulted both of his ex-wives. The White House says a nominee for the DOJ job is in the clearance process.

President Trump has not nominated a the director of the Office on Violence Against Women in the Justice Department. That person oversees a budget of more than $450 million and is supposed to be the administration’s leading voice on domestic and sexual violence, both nationally and internationally. The director can influence programs to better protect and serve victims. Women’s advocates lobbied for years to elevate this job and require that the Senate confirm the president’s pick, the Washington Post reports. It is one of more than 200 high-profile appointments that Trump has left vacant over the past 13 months, far more than his predecessors. The DOJ opening is especially glaring against the backdrop of the White House’s botched response to revelations that former senior aide Rob Porter allegedly assaulted both of his ex-wives, top officials learned about it months ago from the FBI and he was allowed to stay until the press found out.

Cindy Dyer, OVW director in George W. Bush’s second term, says Trump’s nominating someone to the job would be an effective way to show that he’s serious about addressing domestic violence after the lapses on Porter. “Boy, talk about an opportunity,” she said. “To do it right now, in light of what’s going on, I think it’d be a powerful statement and a great opportunity to set an example. It’s perfect timing, and it’s an opportunity to make a statement that violence affects us all and we’re not going to stand for it.” A White House spokesperson said a nominee is “in the clearance process.” Katie Sullivan, who spent the past decade as a county judge in Colorado, started last month as the principal deputy director of the office.


Top Lawmaker: I’ll Fight Trump Police Cuts ‘Tooth and Nail’

Rep. Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-NJ), co-chair of the House Law Enforcement Caucus, says the Trump plan to downgrade the Community Oriented Policing Services Office is an “odd way…to show support for the brave men and women in blue who rely on the office and grants to keep our neighborhoods safe.”

The co-chairman of the House Law Enforcement Caucus has criticized a Trump Administration proposal to downgrade the U.S. Justice Department’s 24-year-old Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office.

In its budget proposal for fiscal year 2019 that was sent to Congress on Monday, the White House said it planned to fold the COPS agency into DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs and asked Congress to reduce the unit’s budget drastically, from about $137 last year million to $64 million next year for police hiring

Cong. Bill Pascrell, Jr.

Rep. Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-NJ) said, “Eliminating the COPS Office and slashing funding for the COPS Hiring Program grants in half is an odd way for President Trump to show support for the brave men and women in blue who rely on the office and grants to keep our neighborhoods safe.”

Pascrell noted that 135 House members signed a letter drafted by Pascrell with Rep. Dave Reichert (R-WA) urging Trump to keep COPS an independent agency with DOJ and to maintain its funding. “I will fight these cuts tooth and nail to ensure they do not happen.”

The Justice Department portrayed the plan as an efficiency move, saying that having another agency administer policing grants along with a long list of other federal aid already being dispensed could allow for the elimination of more than 200 jobs in the department, including about one-third of the COPS Office staff.

DOJ contended that the change would “centralize and strengthen the partnerships [the department] has with its colleagues in State and Local law enforcement and to promote community policing not only through its hiring programs but also through the advancement of strategies for policing innovations and other innovative crime-fighting techniques.”

Because Congress this past weekend approved a two-year federal budget, it will now be up to appropriations committees in each house to recommend specific spending amounts for all government programs. Lawmakers may decide to block the plan to slash the COPS program, although they will be under pressure to make budget cuts governmentwide.

Women’s advocacy groups are expected to oppose another section of the DOJ budget that would also transfer grantmaking from the Office on Violence Against Women to the Office of Justice Programs, but only three jobs in the women’s office would be lost, and the annual grant total would rise slightly, to $486 million.

The Justice Department budget proposal reflects Trump administration priorities of fighting the opioid epidemic, combatting violent crime and drug trafficking gangs and providing tough immigration enforcement.

It seeks more than $109 million for local crime-fighting efforts, including $70 million for a partnership with state and local authorities called Project Safe Neighborhoods that targets gun offenders, the Associated Press reports.

Project Safe Neighborhoods, a partnership with U.S. Attorneys’ offices, “would be dramatically increased … from $6.5 million,” says the National Criminal Justice Association (NCJA).

The budget proposal would move the tobacco and alcohol-related responsibilities of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives into the Treasury Department, which officials say would eliminate duplicative work and would allow the agency to focus more closely on fighting street crime.

DOJ is asking for $13.2 million and 25 new positions to help “modernize” and speed up the ATF’s ability to register restricted weapons, such as machine guns and suppressors, after a steady increase in applications.

The antidrug budget includes a proposed $31.2 million for eight new “heroin enforcement groups” to be sent to hard-hit Drug Enforcement Administration offices. Additional agents would target Mexican drug gangs.

The proposal requetsts $39.8 million for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees immigration courts and is experiencing a backlog of immigration cases. That would include 75 new immigration judges and additional attorneys. The administration wants $25 million for a technological boost for the office, which it says still struggles with a “wholly paper-based system that is both cumbersome and inefficient.”

DOJ also would limit annual expenditures from its Crime Victim Fund to $2.3 billion. The fund was created by Congress in 1984 and is comprised largely of fines paid in federal criminal cases. The fines include huge payments by companies in some major white-collar-crime cases. The fund has amassed more than $12 billion over the years, only a small fraction of which Congress allows to be spent on crime victim aid each year.

The Trump administration is proposing that some of the crime victim fund be used for other purposes, such as projects to reduce violence against women and for grants to fight juvenile crime.

Crime victim advocates may oppose oppose changes in the fund that would divert money intended to aid victims indefinitely to other programs.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcomed.


DOJ in Turmoil With Eight Unconfirmed Positions

Attorney General Jeff Sessions expresses his frustration that a Republican senator, Colorado’s Cory Gardner, is blocking confirmations to key posts over a marijuana policy dispute. Meanwhile, the #3 DOJ leader is resigning.

The sudden departure of the Justice Department’s No. 3 official is adding to the turmoil at an agency that already lacks permanent, politically appointed leaders for many of its most important divisions, the Associated Press reports. Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand’s resignation increases the instability in the department and has prevented the Trump administration from fully implementing its agenda more than a year after Attorney General Jeff Sessions took office. Sessions on Monday blamed a single Republican senator for holding up the confirmations of key figures, including the heads of the department’s national security, criminal and civil rights divisions. Sessions was alluding to Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, who promised to prevent the confirmation of all Justice Department nominees after Sessions lifted Obama-era protections for states that have legalized marijuana. Gardner continues to block the confirmations in protest, his spokesman confirmed Monday night.

Some of President Trump’s Justice Department nominees have been in limbo for months as they go through a drawn-out confirmation process that has been aggravated by Gardner’s resistance. It’s unusual to see a Republican blocking his own president’s nominee. “It’s getting frustrating,” Sessions told the National Sheriff’s Association. “These are critically important components … and we can’t even get a vote.” Brand is leaving for a top legal job at Walmart after less than nine months overseeing some of the department’s most politically challenging areas. She cited an a opportunity in the private sector she could not turn down, which pays considerably more than a job in government. She would have been in line to oversee special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe if Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had resigned, been fired or otherwise stepped aside. Eight key DOJ positions lack Senate-confirmed leaders, including four that were overseen by Brand.


Rachel Brand to Leave Justice Department After 9 Months

The number-three official at DOJ will leave to join Walmart. Brand attracted attention partly because she is first in line behind Rod Rosenstein, who is overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller.

Rachel Brand, the number three official at the Justice Department, plans to step down after nine months on the job, the New York Times reports. Brand’s profile had risen  because she is next in the line of succession behind the deputy attorney general, Rod  Rosenstein, who is overseeing the special counsel’s inquiry into Russian influence in the 2016 election. President Trump, who has called the investigation a witch hunt, has considered firing Rosenstein. Such a move could have put Brand in charge of the special counsel and left her in the cross hairs of the president.

Brand, who became the associate attorney general in May, will become the global governance director at Walmart, the company’s top legal position. She has held politically appointed positions in the past three presidential administrations. She now reports directly to Rosenstein and Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, who has recused himself from the Russia investigation. Trump in recent weeks has escalated his criticism of the department for its handling of the inquiry and suggested that top law enforcement officials should face consequences for conduct he called “a disgrace.” Brand now oversees a wide swath of the Justice Department, including the civil division, the civil rights division and the antitrust division. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) commended Brand and noted that she oversaw “efforts to combat human trafficking, to fight the opioid crisis, and to hold sanctuary cities accountable to the rule of law.”


Brennan Center Says Trump Threatens Justice Reform

The Brennan Center for Justice says President Trump has “sounded false alarms about rising crime nationwide and wrongly linked immigration to both this phantom increase and the opioid crisis.”

Criminal justice policy changes by the Trump administration “threaten to increase the federal prison population and disrupt state and local movements for reform that have broad, bipartisan backing,” says the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. The center’s Inimai Chettiar  charges that President Trump has “sounded false alarms about rising crime nationwide and wrongly linked immigration to both this phantom increase and the opioid crisis. He preys on people’s fears to try to justify …ineffective and overreaching policies.”

A new report from the center on the administration’s first year in office note that policy changes so far have focused on “increasing aggressive prosecutorial practices, changing federal drug enforcement policy, decreasing oversight of problematic police practices, and resurrecting rhetoric around fear of crime.” In the immigration area, arrests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials rose by more than 30 percent, and arrests of people with no criminal conviction increased 146 percent from fiscal year 2016. ICE increased its use of detainers, or requests that local law enforcement hold someone in custody and hand them over to federal law enforcement, by 65 percent. The center notes that the White House will support federal legislation that improves former prisoners’ reentry into society, but has not made a commitment to back federal sentencing reform efforts with bipartisan support. The center says that the Department of Homeland Security expects the daily population in immigration detention centers will increase by 25 percent, which it says will have a significant impact on the criminal justice system.


Rosenstein’s Job Seen In Peril After GOP Memo Release

President Trump refuses to say he has confidence in Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who was accused by some House Republicans of approving a politically biased investigation of a Trump campaign adviser.

Rod Rosenstein’s tenure as deputy attorney general and the top official overseeing the Russia investigation appears to be in peril after President Trump refused to say whether he had confidence in him, reports the Washington Post. After Trump authorized release of a controversial memo on FBI surveillance practices by House Intelligence Committee Republicans, he was asked by a reporter whether he was more likely to fire Rosenstein and whether he had confidence in the 27-year  DOJ veteran. “You figure that one out,” Trump replied.

The memo says Rosenstein signed an application to renew a surveillance warrant on Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser, and says that information justifying that and other warrant requests to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was tainted by political bias. The FBI has said it has “grave concerns” that the memo leaves out important material, creating an inaccurate impression of its work. Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) said he wants Attorney General Jeff Sessions to seek criminal prosecution of Rosenstein and several former Justice Department officials whom he described as “traitors to our nation.” Top House and Senate Democrats told Trump, “We are alarmed by reports that you may intend to use this misleading document as a pretext to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, in an effort to corruptly influence or impede Special Counsel Bob Mueller’s investigation,” likening the possible outcome to the so-called Saturday Night massacre during the Nixon administration. At a DOJ event on Friday, Sessions went off-script to praise Rosenstein, saying he represents “the kind of quality and leadership that we want” at the Justice Department.


House Panel Votes to Release Memo on FBI, Russia

President Trump has five days to decide whether to make public a classified memo written by House Republicans that alleges FBI misconduct in the ongoing Russia investigation. Democrat accuses GOP of politicizing the intelligence process.

President Trump has five days to decide whether to make public a classified memo written by House Republicans that alleges FBI misconduct in the ongoing Russia investigation. Democrat accuses GOP of politicizing the intelligence process.


New Scrutiny on NYC U.S. Attorney Berman

Geoffrey Berman, interim U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, is getting opposition to hold the job permanently because President Trump interviewed him personally. Berman’s defenders say that is legitimate for a president to do.

New scrutiny is being given to Geoffrey Berman, the New York lawyer who’s emerging as President Trump’s choice to be the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, the office that would likely lead any investigation into Trump’s business practices, the Hill reports. Attorney General Jeff Sessions named Berman, 58, a former law partner of Rudy Giuiliani, to be the interim U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, replacing Preet Bharara. Trump personally interviewed Berman for the job. Bharara, the former Obama appointee who was fired by Trump in March, has tweeted that “it is neither normal nor advisable for Trump to personally interview candidates for US Attorney positions, especially the one in Manhattan.”

Victoria Bassetti, who heads the U.S. Attorney Project at the American Constitution Society, said it is virtually unprecedented for the president to interview a potential U.S. attorney nominee. Berman donated $5,400 to Trump’s campaign in July 2016. The meeting with Trump and previous campaign contributions has raised concerns over whether Berman can be impartial if called to investigate the Trump Organization or Trump’s friends or associates. Former colleagues say Berman’s meeting with Trump was not atypical or indicative of an unscrupulous agenda. “U.S. Attorneys are presidential appointees,” said Mary Jo White, the former Securities and Exchange Committee chairwoman who served as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York when Berman was an assistant U.S. attorney. “Meeting with the President prior to being nominated, at the President’s request, is thus appropriate and does not create a conflict of interest. He was also one of the stars in the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office.” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) hopes to use her privilege as a home-state senator to block Berman if he is nominated.


Trump Attacks a ‘Wearying Distraction’ for Sessions

What keeps Attorney General Jeff Sessions going is his Methodist faith, support from his wife and his awareness that, at age 71, leading the Justice Department is his best chance to carry out the policy changes he long has sought. Sessions tells the Associated Press that his first year in office was marked by progress on Trump priorities: fighting crime, combating gangs and helping police.

President Trump’s relentless attacks on him have been a wearying distraction for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, friends of the ex-Alabama senator tell the Associated Press. What keeps him going is his Methodist faith, support from his wife and his awareness that, at age 71, leading the Justice Department is his best chance to carry out the policy changes he long has sought. Sessions said his first year in office was marked by progress on Trump priorities: fighting crime, combating gangs and helping police. “We are doing what the people sent us here to do,” he said. Still, at a Justice Department Christmas party, one friend said the usually upbeat Sessions looked sullen and tired. “We have talked about some of the difficult times he’s had since he has been attorney general,” said the Sen. John Cornyn (R-RX). “My comment to him was, as long as you’re doing the right thing, I don’t think you have anything to apologize for.”

Critics say Sessions is too loyal, dangerously politicizing his department to appease Trump. Sessions told prosecutors to look into Hillary Clinton’s activities after Trump demanded it, and he has been eager to pursue investigations into Trump grievances like media leaks. Lawmakers accuse Sessions of stonewalling committees investigating the Trump campaign by saying he doesn’t recall key events. Some say his public silence in the face of Trump’s assaults on DOJ is demoralizing to employees and threatens its independence. Sessions said it’s the department’s responsibility to identify past mistakes and that a “culture of defensiveness is not acceptable.” Sessions has endured with a courtly stoicism. If he’s frustrated, he keeps it to himself. Meeting Terry Lathan, chairwoman of the Alabama Republican Party, Sessions was more interested in what was going on back home than in complaining about job pressures.