Senate Democrats asked the Justice Department on Tuesday to explain what they described as conflicts of interest involving acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker and Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski.
The letter focuses on more than $1.2 million in compensation Whitaker — President Donald Trump’s choice to temporarily replace ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions — received as executive director of an organization that has sued Democratic lawmakers several times in the past, and on Benczkowski’s history working on behalf of a Russian bank.
The senators — Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) — said those ties created ethical concerns, particularly regarding special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
The senators said previous DOJ responses to requests for information on the officials were heavily redacted.
“Some of these are renewed requests because DOJ has either failed to respond or has provided incomplete responses to prior requests from Congress,” the senators wrote. “To maintain the public’s trust in an impartial DOJ, we urge you to provide prompt, complete, and public responses to the issues we raise.”
Whitaker took over the top job at the Justice Department after Trump pushed out Sessions in early November. Trump had long been angry with Sessions for recusing himself from overseeing Mueller’s investigation. Whitaker has not recused himself from the investigation, though he promised House Democrats that he would not tamper with its integrity.
As a private lawyer, Benczkowski represented Alfa Bank, whose owners have been identified by the Treasury Department as oligarchs with close ties to the Russian government, according to the letter. Senate Democrats criticized Benczkowski’s nomination head of his July confirmation, though he said at the time he would recuse himself from any investigations related to the bank.