05.09.18

Judiciary Committee Democrats Call On President To Withdraw Controversial Justice Dept. Nominee Tied To Russian Bank

U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats are calling on President Trump to withdraw his controversial nomination of Brian Benczkowski to lead the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division. Mr. Benczkowski represented Alfa Bank, a massive private commercial bank in Russia closely allied with President Vladimir Putin and his government, and has refused to pledge to recuse himself from Russia-related matters if confirmed. With new revelations coming to light about Russia’s interference in U.S. elections and a federal criminal investigation ongoing, he will not be able to credibly oversee the Division’s involvement in the Special Counsel’s investigation and matters such as the investigation of Michael Cohen.

Led by Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), the letter is signed by U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Chris Coons (D-DE), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Kamala Harris (D-CA).

Mr. Benczkowski’s representation of the Putin-allied Alfa Bank and his refusal to recuse himself from Russia-related matters mean that he will not be able to credibly oversee the Division’s involvement in Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation and other sensitive matters such as the criminal investigation of Michael Cohen,” the senators wrote. “Furthermore, at a time when the Department of Justice’s handling of criminal matters has come under intense public scrutiny, it is essential that the Criminal Division have an experienced and well-qualified leader whose judgment and independence are beyond reproach. Mr. Benczkowski, who has no prosecutorial experience, does not meet these criteria.  Simply put, Mr. Benczkowski is not the nominee our country needs at this critical moment.”

Text of the letter is below:

May 9, 2018

Dear Mr. President:

We urge you to withdraw the nomination of Brian Benczkowski to be Assistant Attorney General for the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division and to submit another nominee for this important position. 

With new information about Russia’s election interference continuing to come to light and with a federal criminal investigation ongoing, it is imperative that we have a head of the Criminal Division who is free and clear from Russian connections.  Mr. Benczkowski’s representation of the Putin-allied Alfa Bank and his refusal to recuse himself from Russia-related matters mean that he will not be able to credibly oversee the Division’s involvement in Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation and other sensitive matters such as the criminal investigation of Michael Cohen.  Furthermore, at a time when the Department of Justice’s handling of criminal matters has come under intense public scrutiny, it is essential that the Criminal Division have an experienced and well-qualified leader whose judgment and independence are beyond reproach.  Mr. Benczkowski, who has no prosecutorial experience, does not meet these criteria.  Simply put, Mr. Benczkowski is not the nominee our country needs at this critical moment.

The Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division must oversee and manage litigation strategy for hundreds of federal prosecutors handling a wide range of criminal cases.  Mr. Benczkowski, however, has never served as a prosecutor, nor has he ever tried a case.  While Mr. Benczkowski does possess experience as a top aide to then-Senator Jeff Sessions and in various Department of Justice staff positions, this does not qualify him to lead the career prosecutors of the Criminal Division.  His dearth of courtroom experience makes him ill-suited for the position he now seeks. 

Mr. Benczkowski also demonstrated poor judgment by choosing to represent Alfa Bank, a Russian bank controlled by Putin-allied oligarchs, in March 2017– while he was seeking employment in the Justice Department and despite public reports that the bank was under FBI investigation for suspicious computer server contacts with the Trump Organization.  He continued representing Alfa Bank in April and May 2017 even while he was under consideration to head the Criminal Division.  At a time when we need the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division to help uncover, prevent, and deter Russian interference in our democracy, Mr. Benczkowski’s choices so far have not inspired confidence that he is the right person to lead that fight. 

Additionally, unanswered questions remain about Alfa Bank that should be resolved before the Senate even considers voting to confirm this bank’s lawyer to a top Justice Department position.  The Senate does not know if Alfa Bank has been, or still is, under federal criminal investigation, nor do we know the full story behind Alfa Bank’s suspicious contacts with the Trump Organization during the 2016 campaign.  The work that Mr. Benczkowski did for Alfa Bank, which included reviewing the Steele Dossier for a potential defamation suit and overseeing a forensic data firm’s analysis of Alfa’s computer server contacts, in no way put to rest the serious questions about Alfa Bank’s activities.  It would be an abdication of the Senate’s advice and consent role to confirm Mr. Benczkowski without first getting answers to these crucial questions.

We are further concerned about Mr. Benczkowski’s capability to serve as an independent leader of the Criminal Division.  Mr. Benczkowski has worked closely in the past with Attorney General Sessions and sought his help obtaining a Justice Department job in the Trump Administration.  We are troubled by Mr. Benczkowski’s refusal to commit to recuse himself from Russia-related matters if confirmed, and also by the Department’s refusal to identify steps that would be taken to prevent Mr. Benczkowski from learning information about Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation and relaying that information to Attorney General Sessions in contravention of the Attorney General’s recusal commitments.  Also, if confirmed Mr. Benczkowski would have visibility into the criminal investigation and potential prosecution of Michael Cohen, who reportedly sought to pursue business deals in Russia, among other alleged activities.  Attorney General Sessions has reportedly declined to recuse himself from the Cohen matter, and Mr. Benczkowski, if confirmed, could serve as a conduit of information to the Attorney General about this sensitive matter, which may implicate the Russian interference investigation.  We need a head of the Criminal Division who will instill confidence that recusal obligations will be respected and that criminal enforcement decisions will be made independently based solely on the facts and the law.  Because of his own inadequate recusal commitment, Mr. Benczkowski does not inspire this confidence.  

Many of us know Mr. Benczkowski and we respect his public service.  But we can, and must, do better when it comes to the nominee to head the Justice Department’s Criminal Division.  There are many well-qualified attorneys who have significant prosecutorial experience, who are free and clear from Russian connections, and whose independence and judgment are unquestioned.  Mr. Benczkowski is not such a nominee.  We urge you to withdraw Mr. Benczkowski’s nomination and send the Senate a new nominee who meets that standard. 

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