DOJ watchdog urged to investigate lawyers behind Barr memo redactions

The Department of Justice (DOJ) is facing mounting pressure over its handling of a Trump-era legal memo that critics say former Attorney General William BarrBill BarrTrump called acting attorney general almost daily to push election voter fraud claim: report Highest-ranking GOP assemblyman in WI against another audit of 2020 vote Native Americans are targets of voter suppression too MORE used to create a misleading impression of former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate 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 Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE’s findings.

In a Thursday letter, a government watchdog group asked the DOJ’s independent inspector general to investigate whether department attorneys committed perjury or other crimes through a potentially improper attempt to keep the memo’s contents concealed amid a public records request.

“If it turns out that they committed crimes in the process of doing so, they will have magnified the harm to the department’s already damaged reputation and compounded the effect of Barr’s lies to the American people,” read the letter from the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) to the DOJ inspector general.  

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DOJ attorneys told a federal judge that the memo, prepared at Barr’s request by the agency's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), provided legal advice that guided Barr's decision not to charge former President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump PACs brought in over M for the first half of 2021 Chicago owes Trump M tax refund, state's attorney mounts legal challenge Biden hits resistance from unions on vaccine requirement MORE with obstruction of justice. 

But the judge presiding over the records request litigation, Judge Amy Berman Jackson, said in a blistering ruling last month that the OLC memo contained after-the-fact justifications for a conclusion Barr had already reached on not pursuing charges against Trump and accused Barr and DOJ lawyers of being “disingenuous” about why the memo should be kept secret.

The letter from POGO urged the DOJ’s watchdog to investigate the four lawyers involved in the public records case, which was brought under the Freedom of Information Act by another government transparency group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. 

“If, as Judge Jackson appears to have found is the case, these four lawyers misled a federal court, they have done incalculable harm to the public’s trust in government. It would mean senior officials in the nation’s highest law enforcement agency concealed a matter of national concern relating directly to the integrity of the office of the president,” POGO wrote in its letter.

“These shocking findings cry out for those responsible to be fired and prosecuted, unless they can offer a defense presently unknown to the public.”

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The letter was signed by both POGO’s executive director, Danielle Brian, and its senior ethics fellow, Walter ShaubWalter Michael ShaubWhite House defends plans for Hunter Biden art sale Hunter Biden artwork attracts ethics scrutiny: report Stephen Hahn joining venture capital firm behind Moderna MORE, who served as the director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics for the first six months of the Trump administration and later became an outspoken critic of the former president.

Public records law allows the government to redact documents that show internal deliberations before a decision is made.

But after reviewing the unredacted document herself, Jackson said the memo indicated that a prosecution of Trump was not being considered, undercutting the reasoning for withholding the information. 

“The redacted portions of Section I reveal that both the authors and the recipient of the memorandum had a shared understanding concerning whether prosecuting the president was a matter to be considered at all," she wrote. 

"In other words, the review of the document reveals that the attorney general was not then engaged in making a decision about whether the president should be charged with obstruction of justice; the fact that he would not be prosecuted was a given." 

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In its letter, POGO identified four DOJ lawyers — Paul Colborn, Vanessa Brinkmann, Elizabeth Shapiro and Julie Straus Harris — who the group alleges wrote court filings that “created the false impression that OLC wrote its memorandum to help Barr decide whether to prosecute then-President Donald Trump.”

The DOJ has since filed a partial appeal of Jackson’s decision.

"In retrospect, the government acknowledges that its briefs could have been clearer, and it deeply regrets the confusion that caused," the agency said in a court filing last month asking Jackson to stay her decision while the government appeals.

But the Justice Department argued that "imprecision in its characterization of the decisional process did not warrant the conclusion" that the full document should be released.