Top ethics watchdog sues DOJ over release of FBI agents’ Trump texts to reporters

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions waits to speak at the Federalist Society's 2017 National Lawyers Convention in Washington

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U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions waits to speak at the Federalist Society’s 2017 National Lawyers Convention in Washington
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Thomson Reuters

  • A top ethics watchdog is suing the Justice Department for more information about the DOJ’s decision to release two FBI agents’ text messages to reporters last month.
  • The decision drew scrutiny because the text messages are part of an ongoing Inspector General investigation and were released one day before the deputy attorney general testified before Congress.
  • The DOJ has still not revealed how and why it decided to release the text messages to reporters – a move made without consulting the Inspector General.

A top ethics watchdog said Wednesday it is suing the Justice Department for all communications concerning the DOJ’s decision to share with the press text messages exchanged between two FBI employees, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, during the 2016 election.

Many of the texts were overtly critical of President Donald Trump, and Strzok and Page mocked him at various points throughout the campaign, calling him an “idiot.”

Strzok and Page also disparaged other political leaders, like the Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders and former Attorney General Eric Holder. The texts concerning Trump, however, were quickly weaponized by the most vehement critics of special counsel Robert Mueller following the DOJ’s decision to release them to Congress and the press. That release came just one day before Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein testified before the House Judiciary Committee on December 13.

The department has failed to answer a significant lingering question stemming from that release: how it chose which texts, of the more than 10,000 the department obtained over the summer, to unveil publicly. Nor has it released additional messages that could provide context to the ones that were shared with lawmakers and reporters. DOJ has also not disclosed who authorized the release.

The lawsuit, filed by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington asked the “DOJ’s senior leadership offices for all communications concerning the decision” to give the texts to a small group of reporters the day before Rosenstein’s testimony. CREW filed the expedited request Wednesday after the DOJ failed to respond to their initial inquiry within 20 working days.

Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said on Wednesday that career DOJ employees hadn’t denied CREW’s FOIA request, but were examining the expedited review request based on “a two prong standard.”

CREW specified that the Freedom of Information Act request should include “communications with reporters regarding this meeting, communications with DOJ about whether, when, and how to share the text messages with reporters, communications with any member of Congress and/or their staff regarding this matter,” and information about who made the decision to release the texts to the media on December 12.

The DOJ’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, said in a letter to House Judiciary Committee Democrats in December that, absent any legal or ethical issues, he gave the DOJ a green light one month earlier to release the texts to Congress.

Horowitz said his office was not consulted before the DOJ shared the same texts with the press, but the DOJ has insisted it followed proper protocol before doing so.

“Senior career ethics advisers determined that there were no legal or ethical concerns, including under the Privacy Act, that prohibited the release of the information to the public either by members of Congress or by the Department,” Flores said in a statement last month.

But “cutting out the middle person and giving the texts directly to the press is an unusual step that is inconsistent with law enforcement norms and raises concerns that the purpose was political,” said William Yeomans, a former deputy assistant attorney general.

“The bottom line,” he said, “is that a release of raw evidence during an ongoing investigation breaches important norms and is a very bad idea.”

CREW said in its lawsuit that the OIG has indicated it will “continue to review records responsive to CREW’s request” and process it “as expeditiously as possible.” The OIG declined to comment on Wednesday.

Read the full court filing below:

2018-1-3-1-Complaint1 bynatasha on Scribd