Junket justice: How special interests pay to schmooze DOJ and FBI officials

By John Solomon
Opinion Contributor

Of all the agencies in the federal government that should be immune to special-interest schmoozing, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and its premier law enforcement agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives top the list.

Their independence from influence, and their integrity in meting out the law fairly, are essential to their success and the trust the American public places in them.

But this week, the DOJ’s internal watchdog put a rare spotlight on gratuities inside the department when it revealed that a former FBI official accepted free sporting event tickets from a television reporter.

Neither the giver nor the recipient was named in the report, and officials sought to gloss over the finding as an aberration.

But, in fact, there is a systemic system of gratuities invading the ranks of the DOJ, one that is sanctioned at the highest levels of the department and that involves some its most sensitive personnel.

Hundreds of pages of rarely reviewed Office of Government Ethics (OGE) filings reveal that over the past three years, DOJ under both Democratic and Republican presidents has allowed hundreds of its employees to accept free travel, lodging and food from special interests across the globe.

The junkets have taken senior DOJ officials and front-line agents to some of the world’s most desirable locations — Sao Paulo, Brazil, in February, Panama City in March, Morocco in May, and Paris in October, to name a few — as well as exotic locations such as the scenic Indian Ocean island of Mauritius and the glamorously modern Arabian Peninsula city of Dubai.

The hosts footing the bill often have a strong policy or investigative interest in the agencies whose employees they schmooze, or were controlled by foreign governments.

Take, for example, the government of Qatar, which spent more than $10,000 to bring two FBI employees and two assistant U.S. attorneys to speak at conferences or training events in Doha in spring and fall of 2017.

The FBI and Justice Department are investigating Doha and Qatari authorities for possible racketeering in their successful efforts to host an international sporting event in 2019 in that city. News reports indicate the investigations began in 2017.

The juxtaposition of G-men carousing in Qatar at the foreign government’s expense during an ongoing investigation of that country may make some observers feel queasy.

Likewise, Microsoft Corporation hosted and provided thousands of dollars in free meals to a half-dozen FBI officials to attend a cybersecurity event in Panama City this past March, the FBI reported.

The timing once again creates uncomfortable optics when it comes to the FBI’s independence. That’s because it was that very month that the DOJ abruptly ended a major email privacy court battle with Microsoft over emails on an Ireland server sought by agents in a U.S. drug case.

The dropping of the case surprised many, in part because a DOJ lawyer had just argued it before the U.S. Supreme Court weeks earlier, trying to compel the technology giant to give up private emails on the foreign server.

Law firms with major cases pending at DOJ, health care trade groups, technology companies and their groups, and many other corporate interests, also picked up tabs for trips. So did law schools, law enforcement training groups and foreign police agencies, the reports show.

One of the most common funders of DOJ employee trips was the American Bar Association, the main trade group for criminal and civil lawyers who, on a daily basis, tangle in court with federal prosecutors.

ABA was listed more than three dozen times as the paying sponsor for trips, sometimes landing some big fish in the DOJ hierarchy. Then-Deputy Assistant Attorney General Trevor McFadden reported more than $3,000 in free travel, lodging and meals picked up by the ABA for an October 2017 trip to a white-collar crime conference in London.

Just weeks later, McFadden was confirmed to be a federal judge in Washington DC.

Some DOJ officials have a bigger penchant from junkets than others. Take, for example, Andrew Weissmann, the head of DOJ fraud section and the current deputy to special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerAn unquestioning press promotes Rep. Adam Schiff's book based on Russia fiction Senate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG MORE in the investigation of Russia’s influence on our 2016 election.

Weissmann reported accepting more than a half-dozen free trips between 2016 and 2018, all in the United States and none necessarily to glamorous locations, though Miami wasn’t necessarily a bad place for a junket in March 2017, or San Diego the March before that.

His hosts ranged from New York University and Rutgers Law School to the Practising Law Institute in New York, the ABA and a private law firm, his reports show.

DOJ and FBI officials defend the trips, saying any travel gratuities are approved in advance by supervisors and governed by strict ethics rules.

“In furtherance of the FBI’s mission and in the course of their duties, FBI employees routinely travel and participate in public forums in an official capacity,” the bureau said in a statement to me. “At a minimum, all such travel and speaking engagements are authorized by the employee’s direct supervisor and can receive further authorization all the way up to the relevant division head, along with an ethics official determination. Additionally, all FBI personnel are bound by the Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch.”

One thing the FBI statement didn’t say, though, is that the bureau is one of the least transparent agencies within DOJ in disclosing special-interest junkets. It refuses to name the agents who took trips, saying the omission is designed to protect their identities.

One problem with that argument: the agents’ names are on the dockets of these events and their hosts often share their pictures and words on social media. Seems like adding their names to the ethics reports would be a win for transparency.

One of the most expensive trips reported over the last three years involved an FBI employee, in fact. Though the name was redacted, we know that the bureau employee reported more than $7,000 in comped travel expenses earlier this year to go to Buenos Aires, Argentina, to speak to a real estate conference on behalf of the global auction house Christie's.

Want to guess the month? If you picked wintry February, you'd be right. That's when the temperature on Buenos Aires' legendary beaches tops out in the mid-80s.

John Solomon is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work over the years has exposed U.S. and FBI intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 attacks, federal scientists’ misuse of foster children and veterans in drug experiments, and numerous cases of political corruption. He is The Hill’s executive vice president for video.

Weissmann Junkets by The Hill Newspaper on Scribd