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INSIGHT: The Ethics Case Against Attorney General Barr

July 24, 2020, 8:00 AM

On July 22, 27 distinguished District of Columbia attorneys, including former bar presidents and a former senior lawyer in the D.C. Bar disciplinary office, filed a comprehensive D.C. Bar complaint detailing the pattern of Attorney General William Barr’s ethical violations over the last 16 months.

The meticulously researched, 37-page complaint details how Barr has continuously violated the D.C. Bar Rules of Professional Conduct prohibiting deceitful and dishonest conduct, interference with the administration of justice, conflicts of interest and a failure to support the Constitution.

Barr’s client is the United States, and not the president. Yet, he has consistently taken action to serve Trump’s personal and political self-interest rather than the nation’s interest in impartial justice. The complaint focuses on a consistent pattern of unethical actions taken by Barr.

Unethical Actions

Starting March 24, 2019, two days after receiving the 448-page Mueller Report and well before releasing the report publicly, Barr announced that he had concluded that the president had no criminal liability for obstructing justice. This was based upon the transparently untenable conclusion that evidence proving obstruction was insufficient.

As District Judge Reggie Walton subsequently wrote, Barr’s conduct had “cause[d] the Court to seriously question whether Attorney General Barr made a calculated attempt to influence public discourse” in favor of President Trump contrary to the actual content of the report.

Two months later, in May 2019, Barr initiated a counter-investigation into the propriety of the FBI investigation even though a similar inquiry by the department’s inspector general had been underway for more than a year.

The inspector general issued his report on Dec. 9, 2019. He concluded that there was an ample factual basis for the FBI investigation’s initiation. Yet the very next day Barr, in a televised interview, abandoned all precedent and attacked the report’s determination that the FBI legitimately launched its investigation.

This attack cannot be reconciled with the special counsel’s multiple indictments and criminal convictions, including that of Roger Stone for obstructing Congress via false statements and witness tampering. In commenting on this attack, William Webster, retired judge and former FBI and CIA director under President Reagan, stated, “The country can ill afford to have a chief law enforcement officer dispute the Justice Department’s own independent inspector general’s report.”

Public Criticism of FBI Agents

Moreover, in the same interview and again in a televised interview on May 7, Barr publicly maligned the FBI agents who conducted the investigation. These FBI agents continue to be the subject of Barr’s ongoing criminal investigation. Barr’s attack on them, in the course of suggesting possible prosecution, violated Justice Department rules which prohibit comment by prosecutors on “the existence of an ongoing [criminal] investigation” or on “its nature or progress before charges are publicly filed.”

Most recently, on June 1, Barr oversaw, ordered and supported federal law enforcement in the course of the events at Lafayette Square, grossly violating Americans’ foundational rights under the First and Fourth Amendments to the Constitution. His actions at this event resulted in the forcible dispersal of peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square by police and military forces and violated his oath of office to protect and defend the Constitution.

A law-abiding society depends on public confidence in the administration of justice and in the integrity of our Department of Justice. When this trust is undermined, the damage to our system of justice is incalculable. This is especially true if the attorney general abuses his trust.

The attorney general’s ethical violations have also done significant damage to the morale of career professionals who carry out the mission of equal justice. I spent more than 36 years working for the Department under attorneys general from both parties. While there were times when differences surfaced as to the best position to take in our cases, never was there a time like this.

As ethics professor Stephen Gillers stated: “We don’t have an attorney general now. We have another lawyer for the president.”

Over the last several months, up to 2,500 former Department of Justice attorneys have strenuously objected on three occasions to Barr’s unethical actions and political interference in the DOJ’s law enforcement decisions. Our democracy depends on a Department of Justice that acts as an independent arbiter of equal justice, not as an arm of the president’s political apparatus.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Joseph Rich served for 36 years for the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division from 1968-2005 and 13 years for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law from 2005-2018. He is currently active in pro bono legal work.

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