WP: Justice Dept. inspector general to investigate pre-election actions by department and FBI

Screen Shot 2017-01-12 at 10.38.48 AMWashington Post: Matt Zapotosky and Sari Horwitz January 12, 2017. Updated 4:05 pm

The Justice Department inspector general will review broad allegations of misconduct involving FBI Director James B. Comey and how he handled the probe of Hillary Clinton’s email practices, the inspector general announced Thursday.

The investigation will be wide ranging — encompassing Comey’s various letters and public statements on the matter and whether FBI or other Justice Department employees leaked nonpublic information, according to a news release from Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz.

Democrats and Clinton herself have blamed Comey for the Democratic candidate’s loss, arguing that the renewed inquiry and the FBI director’s public missives on the eve of the election blunted her momentum. Comey has faced months of criticism, some of it from former Justice officials, for violating the department’s policy of avoiding any action that could affect a candidate close to an election.

Brian Fallon, a former Clinton campaign spokesman, praised the investigation Thursday.

“This is highly encouraging and to be expected given Director Comey’s drastic deviation from Justice Department protocol,” Fallon said. “A probe of this sort, however long it takes to conduct, is utterly necessary in order to take the first step to restore the FBI’s reputation as a non-partisan institution.”

Lawmakers and others had called previously for the inspector general to probe the FBI’s pre-election actions when it came to the Clinton probe, alleging that Comey bucked long-standing policies with his communications about the case and that information seemed to have leaked inappropriately — perhaps to former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

[The attorney general could have ordered FBI Director James Comey not to send his bombshell letter on Clinton emails. Here’s why she didn’t.]

Horowitz said in a news release that he will explore the circumstances surrounding the actions of Comey and others, though he will not re-litigate whether anyone should have faced charges.

“The review will not substitute the OIG’s judgment for the judgments made by the FBI or the Department regarding the substantive merits of investigative or prosecutive decisions,” the news release said, using an acronym for the Office of the Inspector General.

“I am grateful to the Department of Justice’s IG for taking on this review,” said Comey in a statement. “He is professional and independent and the FBI will cooperate fully with him and his office. I hope very much he is able to share his conclusions and observations with the public because everyone will benefit from thoughtful evaluation and transparency regarding this matter.”

The FBI’s probe into whether Clinton mishandled classified information by using a private email server when she was secretary of state has long been controversial and politically charged.

Perhaps most notably, Comey on Oct. 28 — after previously announcing publicly that he was recommending no charges in the case — sent a letter to congressional leaders telling them that agents had resumed the Clinton probe after finding potentially relevant information in an unrelated case.

The day before, senior Justice Department leaders had warned Comey not to send the letter, because it violated two long-standing department policies — discussing an ongoing investigation and taking any overt action on an investigation so close to an election. At the time, it was less than two weeks before the election, and early voting had already begun.

Comey, too, has notably declined to talk about any possible investigations of President-elect Donald Trump or his campaign, as recently as this week rebuffing requests from legislators to confirm agents were looking into any such matters.

“I don’t—especially in a public forum, we never confirm or deny a pending investigation,” Comey said.

Comey sent a second letter to Congress on the Clinton case, just days before the election, declaring that the investigation was complete and he was not changing the decision he had made in July to recommend no charges. But the damage — in the minds of Clinton supporters, at least — had been done.

Horowitz wrote that he will explore “allegations that Department or FBI policies or procedures were not followed” in connection with both letters. When he is finished, his office will likely issue a lengthy report detailing what it has found, as it has done in other high-profile matters.

Deputy Inspector General Robert P. Storch declined to comment for this story. The FBI did not immediately provide a response.

Horowitz wrote that his inquiry would extend back to at least July — when Comey announced he was recommending the Clinton case be closed without charges. He wrote that he would explore “allegations that Department and FBI employees improperly disclosed non-public information” — potentially a reference to Giuliani, who seemed to claim at one point he had insider FBI knowledge. Horowitz also wrote that he would explore whether FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe should have been recused from the case. McCabe’s wife, ran for a Virginia senate seat and took money from the PAC of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a fierce Clinton ally.

Horowitz wrote that he would delve more deeply into the FBI publishing, just days before the election, 129 pages of internal documents from a years-old probe into former president Bill Clinton’s pardon of fugitive Democratic donor. And he said he would also probe whether Peter Kadzik, the Justice Department’s Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs “improperly disclosed non-public information to the Clinton campaign and/or should have been recused from participating in certain matters.” Kadzik used to be the lawyer for Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, and Wikileaks released hacked emails showing communications between the two men about the State Department’s review of Clinton emails for Freedom of Information Act purposes.

Virtually all of the matters being probed are well-publicized controversies, and in some cases, the FBI has defended its actions. In the case of McCabe, for example, the deputy director’s wife, physician Jill McCabe, was recruited to run for a Virginia state senate seat, and took more than $450,000 from a McAuliffe PAC. At the time news of the donations broke, Donald Trump, then just a candidate for president, called the development “absolutely disgraceful” and claimed, “we’ve never had a thing like this in the history of our country.”

The FBI, though, asserted at the time that McCabe had checked in with ethics officials and followed agency protocols. And, when his wife was first recruited to run, he was not yet deputy director. He was elevated to that post in February 2016, after his wife was out of politics.

The FBI, too, has previously stood by its handling of the release of documents related to the Marc Rich pardon. The bureau dumped the documents onto a records website on Nov. 1 — just days before the election — and announced it had done so on Twitter. The bureau said it did so in response to records requests, and the tweet was sent because of updates to an automated system. The timing generated significant controversy, though, and someone complained to the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility.

An FBI spokesman said at the time he had been in touch with the office’s director, and it was “unlikely” an investigation would be launched. Now, the inspector general will look into the matter.

Notably absent from the list of matters being considered is Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s controversial meeting in June with former president Bill Clinton aboard her plane on the tarmac of the Phoenix, Airport. The half-hour conversation, which Lynch has said she regrets, created the appearance that the attorney general was politically compromised. Some officials say it left a leadership vacuum and likely prompted Comey to give his controversial July press conference, at which he announced he was recommending no charges for Clinton but criticized her and her aides as “extremely careless.”

The tarmac meeting could be encompassed in the investigation of possible leaks of information, and Horowitz wrote that his investigators would consider “other issues that may arise during the course of the review.” But Horowitz specifically referenced the dates of Comey’s letters and his press conference as parts of his investigation. He did not mention Bill Clinton or Lynch, who have both asserted that their conversation was not about the Clinton email case.

Anne Gearan and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.

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