Michael J. Elston

On July 7, 2008, CREW filed a complaint against Michael J. Elston with the Virginia Bar for his role in the illegal politicization of hiring practices at the Department of Justice. However, CREW did not file a complaint with the Illinois, Kansas or Missouri Bars, jurisdictions in which Mr. Elston is also admitted, as explained here, but only sent these associations a copy of the Virginia complaint. More importantly, because the CREW complaint addressed only the illegal politicization of hiring practices at the Department of Justice, CREW notably failed to address Mr. Elston’s role in the politicized firing of several sitting United States Attorneys. As set forth below, Mr. Elston is also in violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct for Illinois, Kansas, Missouri and Virginia regarding his role in the United States Attorney firings.

Personal Information:

  • Name: Michael J. Elston, Partner, McGuireWoods LLP
  • Washington Square, 1050 Connecticut Avenue N.W., Suite 1200
    Washington, District of Columbia 20036-5317
  • Telephone: 202-857-1700, Fax: 202-857-1737

Bar Information: Illinois

  • ID No.: N/A
  • Date of Admission as Lawyer by Illinois Supreme Court: November 10, 1994
  • Registered Business Address: Mcguirewoods LLP
    1750 Tysons Blvd, Suite 1800
    McLean, VA 22102-4231
  • Registered Business Phone: (703) 712-5366
  • Illinois Registration Status: Active and authorized to practice law
  • Last Registered Year: 2008
  • Malpractice Insurance: (Current as of date of registration; consult attorney for further information) In annual registration, attorney reported that he/she has malpractice coverage.
  • Public Record of Discipline and Pending Proceedings: None

Grievance Information: Illinois

Bar Information: Kansas

  • ID No.: N/A
  • Status: Unknown
  • On July 2, 2008, Amanda Provorse, Attorney Registration, responded to my e-mail request for Mr. Elston’s status with the Kansas Bar that “Mr. Elston is currently active and in good standing. He was admitted 9/29/1998.”

Grievance Information: Kansas

Bar Information: Missouri

Grievance Information: Missouri

Bar Information: Virginia

  • ID No.: N/A
  • Status: Active
  • Registered Address: 1750 Tysons Boulevard, Suite 1800, McLean, VA 22102-4215
  • Registered Phone: 703-712-5366 and Fax: 703-712-5215
  • Member class: Active

Grievance Information: Virginia

While reviewing this matter, it is important to keep in mind that the privilege to practice law imposes duties and responsibilities on each attorney who accepts a license to practice law. These obligations are described in the Preamble to the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct :

The practice of law is a public trust. Lawyers are the trustees of the system by which citizens resolve disputes among themselves, punish and deter crime, and determine their relative rights and responsibilities toward each other and their government. Lawyers therefore are responsible for the character, competence and integrity of the persons whom they assist in joining their profession; for assuring access to that system through the availability of competent legal counsel; for maintaining public confidence in the system of justice by acting competently and with loyalty to the best interests of their clients; by working to improve that system to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing society; and by defending the integrity of the judicial system against those who would corrupt, abuse or defraud it.

To achieve these ends the practice of law is regulated by the following rules. Violation of these rules is grounds for discipline.

* * *

The quality of the legal profession can be no better than that of its members. Lawyers must exercise good judgment and candor in supporting applicants for membership in the bar.

Lawyers also must assist in the policing of lawyer misconduct. The vigilance of the bar in preventing and, where required, reporting misconduct can be a formidable deterrent to such misconduct, and a key to maintaining public confidence in the integrity of the profession as a whole in the face of the egregious misconduct of a few.

These obligations are also expressly stated in the Preamble to the Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct, the Preamble to the Kansas Rules of Professional Conduct and the Preamble to the Missouri Rules of Professional Conduct, which provide, in part, that

A lawyer’s conduct should conform to the requirements of the law, both in professional service to clients and in the lawyer’s business and personal affairs. A lawyer should use the law’s procedures only for legitimate purposes and not to harass or intimidate others. A lawyer should demonstrate respect for the legal system and for those who serve it, including judges,
other lawyers and public officials. While it is a lawyer’s duty, when necessary, to challenge the rectitude of official action, it is also a lawyer’s duty to uphold legal process.

* * *

The legal profession’s relative autonomy carries with it special responsibilities of self-government. The profession has a responsibility to assure that its regulations are conceived in the public interest and not in furtherance of parochial or selfinterested concerns of the bar. Every lawyer is responsible for observance of the Rules of Professional Conduct. A lawyer should also aid in securing their observance by other lawyers. Neglect of these responsibilities compromises the independence of the profession and the public interest which it serves.

It is also important to bear in mind that although Mr. Elston denies improper motives or conduct, his denials and protestation must be evaluated based on the totality of the circumstances. As noted in the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct, for Mr. Elston to believe that his conduct was proper, he must have “actually supposed the fact in question to be true” (which belief “may be inferred from circumstances”) and for that belief to be reasonable requires “that the circumstances are such that the belief is reasonable.” Additionally, because “a lawyer of reasonable prudence and competence would ascertain the matter in question” to be improper, Mr. Elston reasonably should have known that his conduct was improper.

As detailed more specifically below, Mr. Elston’s conduct violated the following the following rules of professional conduct:

Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct:

Kansas Rules of Professional Conduct

Missouri Rules of Professional Conduct

Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct

File a grievance against Mr. Elston

  1. Print, complete and sign the official Complaint Form for Illinois, Kansas, Missouri (or .pdf) and/or Virginia (or .pdf );
  2. Print and attach this page to the Complaint Form; and
  3. Mail the complaint to the address noted on the Complaint Form.

Allegation: Michael J. Elston engaged in conduct that was a violation of federal laws that prohibit the obstruction of justice when he threatened four (4) recently-resigned United States Attorneys.

Michael J. Elston’s participation in the scheme to fire multiple United States Attorneys is at least unethical, if not actually criminal. As set out in greater detail below, Mr. Elston’s role in the firing of numerous United States Attorneys included placing telephone calls to several of these U.S. Attorneys in which he conveyed the threat that the Department of Justice would publicly attack the U.S. Attorneys if they chose to testify to the United States House and Senate. As reported by Paul Kiel at TPMMuckraker on May 2, 2007,

U.S. Attorney for Arizona Paul Charlton told Congress that Michael Elston, the chief of staff to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, called him and warned him to remain silent. “I believe that Elston was offering me a quid pro quo agreement: my silence in exchange for the Attorney General’s,” Charlton wrote in answer to questions from the House Judiciary Committee.

Charlton did not expound on the conversation in his answer, only saying that the call occurred after the firing on December 7th, but before the attorney general testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on January 18th of this year.

It’s not the first time that Elston has been accused by one of the fired U.S. attorneys of trying to intimidate them into silence. Two others have said the same thing.

U.S. Attorney for Little Rock Bud Cummins testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Elston had made a similar call to him in mid-February. Cummins produced an email written the day of the call that clearly laid out the threatening undercurrent to Elston’s message.

And U.S. Attorney for Seattle John McKay has said that he got a call from Elston in December. Newsweek reported that McKay says “he also got a phone call from a ‘clearly nervous’ Elston asking if he intended to go public: ‘He was offering me a deal: you stay silent and the attorney general won’t say anything bad about you.'” (Emphasis supplied.)

Prior to this article, Mr. Kiel had reported on the contents of Mr. Cummins’ e-mail on March 7, 2007:

In a February 19th article in The Washington Post, Cummins was quoted on the firings:

“They’re [the Justice Department] entitled to make these changes for any reason or no reason or even for an idiotic reason,… But if they are trying to suggest that people have inferior performance to hide whatever their true agenda is, that is wrong. They should retract those statements.”

The next day, Cummins got a call from Elston. And very unfortunately for the Justice Department, Cummins sent out an email no more than an hour after the call to the other fired prosecutors (you can see it here):

The essence of his message was that they feel like they are taking unnecessary flak to avoid trashing each of us specifically or further, but if they feel like any of us intend to continue to offer quotes to the press, or organize behind the scenes congressional pressure, then they would feel forced to somehow pull their gloves off and offer public criticisms to defend their actions more fully…. I was tempted to challenge him and say something movie-like such as “are you threatening ME???”, but instead I kind of shrugged it off…

Cummins, a lifelong Republican, continues in the email to refer to Elston’s “threat of retaliation” and the “threatening undercurrent in the call.” So it was abundantly clear to him that he was being threatened.

The most inflammatory part of the email is Cummins’ description of Elston’s reaction to the idea of the fired prosecutors testifying before Congress:

“He reacted quite a bit to the idea of anyone voluntarily testifying and it seemed clear that they would see that as a major escalation of the conflict meriting some kind of unspecified form of retaliation.”

Mr. Kiel also reported on these comments from fired U.S. Attorney John McKay:

Now another prosecutor, Seattle’s John McKay, says he got a similar call much earlier, before the firings had even been reported. From Newsweek:

After McKay was fired in December, he says he also got a phone call from a “clearly nervous” Elston asking if he intended to go public: “He was offering me a deal: you stay silent and the attorney general won’t say anything bad about you.”

Murray Waas of the National Journal reported on May 3, 2007 these details regarding Mr. Elston’s conduct:

The U.S. attorneys have said that Elston, in effect, told them that if they kept quiet about their dismissals, the Justice Department would not suggest that they had been forced to resign because of poor performance.

* * *

McKay, who was the first of the prosecutors whom Elston called, described Elston’s message to him: “The attorney general was not going to disclose that I or the other U.S. attorneys were fired or forced to resign.… ‘We have no intention of naming people.'”

McKay said that Elston never specifically suggested an explicit quid pro quo whereby Justice officials would not say that McKay had been fired for cause or poor performance if McKay did not talk to the media or Congress about his firing. However, McKay said, “a reasonable person would have felt both offended and threatened” by Elston’s call.

McKay said that the message he took away from the conversation was, “If you remain silent, we will not out you as someone who was forced to resign.”

McKay said that he made contemporaneous notes of his conversation with Elston, and dated them — something, he said, that was not his ordinary practice. He did so because of his concerns about what Elston was telling him, according to McKay.

Charlton said he got a similar phone call from Elston on the same day. In formal response to written questions posed to him by the House Judiciary Committee, Charlton said, “I believe that Elston was offering me a quid pro quo agreement: my silence in exchange for the attorney general’s.”

Cummins testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 6, at which time a contemporaneous e-mail he wrote within an hour of his phone call with Elston was released. In the e-mail, which he sent to five of his fellow prosecutors, Cummins said that the “essence of [Elston’s] message” was that if any of the fired U.S. attorneys had pressed their case in the media or before Congress, senior aides to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales might “feel forced to somehow pull their gloves off” and accuse the prosecutors of ineptitude or poor management.

Cummins also wrote in his e-mail that Elston had called him because he was upset about comments Cummins had made in the press about his firing. “[Justice officials] feel like they are taking unnecessary flak to avoid trashing each of us,” Cummins said in the e-mail to his fellow prosecutors. “I also made it a point to tell him that all of us have turned down multiple invitations to testify. He reacted quite a bit to the idea of anyone voluntarily testifying, and it seemed clear that they would see this as a major escalation of the conflict meriting some kind of unspecified form of retaliation.”

McKay, one of the prosecutors who got the e-mail, said: “[Cummins] wanted to send a message to all of us. We got that message, loud and clear: If you talk to the press or go to Congress, the Department of Justice will not consider you a friend. I considered it an act of intimidation.”

* * *

At the March 6 Senate Judiciary hearing, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., asked Cummins and three others U.S. attorneys what they would have done in their capacity as federal prosecutors had they learned that an interested party in one of their investigations had tried to discourage a witness from providing information or testifying. All four said that they would have investigated the matter to determine a possible obstruction of justice.

“Mr. Cummins, let me ask you first. I’d like to ask you to put your U.S. attorney hat back on,” Whitehouse said. “You’re still in office, and think of a significant grand jury investigation that you led as United States attorney in your district. And consider that a significant witness in that grand jury investigation has just come into your office to relate to you that prior to his grand jury testimony he was approached about his testimony and [told]… essentially exactly the words that Mr. Elston approached you. What would your next step be as United States attorney?”

Cummins responded: “We take intimidation of witnesses very seriously in the Department of Justice and the U.S. attorney’s office, so we would be very proactive in that situation.”

Attempting to moderate his statement, he added: “I would qualify that by saying that at the time this discussion was had, we weren’t under a subpoena; the idea of testifying was just kind of a theoretical idea out there. And I would say … to the extent we talked about testimony at all, it was the idea that running out and volunteering to be part of this would not be viewed charitably by the people that it would affect.”

Whitehouse pressed Cummins: “But if that sort of approach had been made to a witness in an active proceeding that you were leading, and you were extremely proactive about it, that would lead you where?”

“Well, we’d certainly investigate it and see if a crime had occurred.”

“And the crime would be?”

Cummins responded: “Obstruction of justice. I think there are several statutes that might be implicated — but obstruction of justice.”

Whitehouse posed the same question to John McKay, the fired U.S. attorney from Washington state.

McKay responded: “I would be discussing it with the assigned prosecutor and federal agents.”

“With regard to?”

“With regard to possible obstruction of justice.”

Whitehouse next put the question to David Iglesias, the fired U.S. attorney from New Mexico:

Iglesias replied: “Same answer, sir. I would contact the career [assistant U.S. attorney] and probably the FBI and talk about what’s the evidence we have to maybe move forward on an obstruction investigation.

Finally, Whitehouse looked toward Carol Lam, the fired U.S. attorney from San Diego.

She answered without hesitation: “Fundamentally the same answer: witness intimidation.” (Emphasis supplied.)

Lara Jakes Jordan adds in this article on June 16, 2007:

“I believe that Elston was offering me a quid pro quo agreement: my silence in exchange for the attorney general’s,” wrote Paul Charlton, the former U.S. attorney in Nevada.

John McKay, former top prosecutor in Seattle, said he perceived a threat from Elston during his call. And Carol Lam, who was U.S. attorney in San Diego, said that “during one phone call, Michael Elston erroneously accused me of ‘leaking’ my dismissal to the press, and criticized me for talking to other dismissed U.S. attorneys.”

A fourth former U.S. attorney, Bud Cummins in Little Rock, Ark., had made a similar accusation in an e-mail released in March. At the time, Elston said he was “shocked and baffled” that his Feb. 20 conversation with Cummins could be interpreted as threatening.

Finally, Dan Eggen and Amy Goldstein report in the Washington Post on June 16, 2007:

Former U.S. attorney John McKay of Seattle told Congress that on Jan. 17 — before McKay stepped down — he received a call from Elston that he “greatly resented.” He said Elston attempted to “buy my silence by promising that the attorney general would not demean me in his Senate testimony.”

“My handwritten and dated notes of this call,” McKay told Congress, “reflect that I believed Mr. Elston’s tone was sinister and that he was prepared to threaten me further if he concluded I did not intend to continue to remain silent about my dismissal.”

Paul K. Charlton, who was the U.S. attorney in Phoenix, said that he, too, received a call that day in which Elston offered “a quid pro quo agreement: my silence in exchange for the attorney general’s.” Another former prosecutor, Carol C. Lam of San Diego, said Elston accused her of “leaking” word of her dismissal to the press “and criticized me for talking to other dismissed U.S. attorneys.”

Former U.S. attorney Bud Cummins of Little Rock also recounted a Feb. 20 conversation with Elston that Cummins said contained a “threatening undercurrent” warning that Justice Department officials would retaliate if he or his colleagues spoke to journalists or volunteered to testify in Congress.

As described by fired United States Attorneys John McKay, Bud Cummins, Paul Charlton and Carol Lam and as reported in the public record as noted above, the conduct of Mr. Elston clearly establishes that he committed criminal or deliberately wrongful acts that reflects adversely on the his honesty, trustworthiness and fitness to practice law. Additionally, Mr. Elston clearly engaged in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.

Allegation 2:

Michael J. Elston engaged in conduct that was a violation of federal laws that prohibit politicization of hiring within the Department of Justice when he selected candidates for employment based on political criteria.

As described in thisletter to Senator Patrick Leahy, Chairman, Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, and The Honorable John Conyers, Jr., Chairman, Committee on the Judiciary, United States House of Representatives from A Group of Concerned Department of Justice Employees, dated April 9, 2007, Mr. Elston engaged in conduct that was a violation of federal hiring laws:

Needless to say, many people were upset and confused. Why had so many potential interviewees been removed from the list? [Italics in original] Top supervisors requested answers, and on December 5 a meeting was held with Michael Ellston [sic], Chief of Staff to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty. Many division attorneys and staff were present, and Mr. Ellston [sic] was offensive to the point of insulting. Claiming that the entire group had not “done their jobs” in reviewing applicants, he said that he had a “screening panel” go over the list and research these candidates on the Internet; he refused to give the names of those on his “panel.” Mr. Ellston [sic] said that people were struck from the list for three reasons:grades, spelling errors on applications, and inappropriate information about them on the Internet, When the meeting attendees protested that these interviewees had excellent grades, Mr. Ellston [sic]replied that a Harvard graduate in the bottom half of the class was more desirable than the top students at a second-tier law schools. Although Mr. Ellston [sic] stated that he would entertain appeals to his decisions, few of these appeals were granted.

When division personnel staff later compared the remaining interviewees with the candidates struck from the list, one common denominator appeared repeatedly: most of those struck from the list had interned for a Hill Democrat, clerked for a Democratic judge, worked for a “liberal” cause, or otherwise appeared to have “liberal” leanings. Summa cum laude graduates of both Yale and Harvard were rejected for interviews. There are also reports that officials at Harvard’s Career Placement Office called DOJ personnel to ask why their students were not getting interviews and also to ask why decisions had not yet been made about the Summer Law Intern Program.

These allegations were confirmed by the United States Department of Justice Office of Professional Responsibility and Office of the Inspector Generals in their report,An Investigation of Allegations of Politicized Hiring in the Department of Justice Honors Program and Summer Law Intern Program, which provided the following details regarding Mr. Elston’s conduct:

…. However, we believe the most significant misconduct was committed by ELSTON, the head of the Screening Committee. ELSTON failed to take appropriate action when he learned that McDonald was routinely deselecting candidates on the basis of what she perceived to be the candidates’ liberal affiliations. We also concluded that ELSTON deselected some candidates – and allowed the deselection of others – based on impermissible considerations.

* * *

As explained below, we concluded that ELSTON violated federal law and Department policy by deselecting candidates based on their liberal affiliations. First, the data analysis indicates that highly qualified candidates with liberal or Democratic Party affiliations were deselected at a much higher rate than highly qualified candidates with conservative or Republican Party affiliations. Second, ELSTON admitted that he may have deselected candidates in a few instances due to their affiliations with certain liberal causes. ELSTON also was unable in specific cases to give a credible reason as to why highly qualified candidates with liberal or Democratic Party affiliations were deselected.

While ELSTON generally denied that he considered political or ideological affiliations in evaluating candidates, he admitted when questioned about certain candidates that he considered aspects of those candidates’ ideological affiliations in his evaluation. ….

In addition, ELSTON consistently was unable to provide credible explanations as to why he denied the appeals of the highly qualified candidates who had liberal or Democratic Party affiliations. His proffered reasons were also inconsistent with other statements he made or actions he took. ….

Similarly, we did not find credible ELSTON’s explanation that he may have denied the appeal of a highly qualified candidate who had worked for the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military because he concluded the candidate would not “stand up for the law with respect to sentencing and Department policy” due to the statement in her essay that she would be able to exercise prosecutorial discretion as a federal prosecutor. We also did not credit ELSTON’s other explanation for denying this candidate – that she was not academically qualified because she was in the top third rather than the top quarter of her class at Stanford Law – since it was inconsistent with his actions in approving other candidates from lower-tier law schools with lower grades. During his interview, ELSTON also frequently pointed to lines in candidates’ essays that may have been a basis for deselecting candidates because he said these statements could be indications that the candidates would improperly follow their own consciences rather than the Department’s policies. These included statements such as the candidate wanting to work for the Department because the job would allow the candidate “to consider what is best for my country.”

In addition to ELSTON’s failure to provide credible explanations for his actions during his interview, we concluded that ELSTON was not candid with others in the Department who questioned him during the hiring process about why candidates were being deselected. ….

Moreover, ELSTON tried to minimize his role in selecting candidates when he was questioned by others about the Committee’s decisions. ELSTON frequently explained that other Committee members had been responsible for the decisions and described his role as a conduit. However, the evidence demonstrated that he was casting the deciding vote on a significant number of candidates that Fridman had approved and McDonald had rejected.

In sum, we found that ELSTON was aware that McDonald was rejecting candidates based on her perception of the candidates’ political or ideological affiliations and that he failed to intervene, discuss it with her, or stop her from doing so. We also concluded that ELSTON committed misconduct, and violated federal law and Department policy, when he deselected candidates and denied appeals based on his perception of the political or ideological affiliations of the candidates.

* * *

IV. Conclusions and Recommendations

* * *

The documentary evidence and witness interviews also support the conclusion that two members of the 2006 Screening Committee, Esther Slater McDonald and Michael ELSTON, took political or ideological affiliations into account in deselecting candidates in violation of Department policy and federal law. For example, the evidence showed that McDonald wrote disparaging statements about candidates’ liberal and Democratic Party affiliations on the applications she reviewed and that she voted to deselect candidates on that basis.

We also found that ELSTON, the head of the 2006 Screening Committee, failed to take appropriate action when he learned that McDonald was routinely deselecting candidates on the basis of what she perceived to be the candidates’ liberal affiliations. The evidence also showed that ELSTON himself deselected some candidates – and allowed the deselection of others – based on impermissible considerations. Despite his initial denial in our interview that he did not consider such inappropriate factors, he later admitted in the interview that he may have deselected candidates in a few instances due to their affiliation with certain causes. In addition, ELSTON was unable to give a credible reason as to why specific highly qualified candidates with liberal or Democratic credentials were deselected.

We concluded that, as a result of the actions of McDonald and ELSTON, many qualified candidates were deselected by the Screening Committee because of their perceived political or ideological affiliations. We believe that McDonald’s and ELSTON’s conduct constituted misconduct and also violated the Department’s policies and civil service law that prohibit discrimination in hiring based on political or ideological affiliations.

However, because both McDonald and ELSTON have resigned from the Department, they are no longer subject to discipline by the Department for their actions. Nevertheless, we recommend that the Department consider the findings in this report should either McDonald or ELSTON apply in the future for another position with the Department.

[Footnote] 59 However, we found evidence that McDonald knew that using political and ideological affiliation was inappropriate, but did it anyway. As noted above, in an e-mail dated October 25, 2006, unrelated to the Honors Program and SLIP, McDonald advised a friend applying for a career position with the Department “there’s not much I can do apart from recommending you because there are legal constraints on career hiring to ensure that it’s not political.”

[Footnote] 60 Although ELSTON stated that he did not know whether McDonald’s no votes were actually based upon the negative comments she was making about the candidates’ liberal affiliations, we found that statement disingenuous. Fridman told ELSTON that McDonald was doing this, and the notations on the applications, which ELSTON recognized as McDonald’s handwriting, showed that McDonald was circling and commenting on these groups. Moreover, many of these candidates had stellar credentials, and there was no other apparent reason for McDonald recommending their deselection.

[Footnote] 61 OPR Counsel H. Marshall Jarrett recused himself from the evaluation of DeFalaise’s conduct.

(Emphasis supplied.)

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Text of the Illinois, Kansas, Missouri and Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct violated by Mr. Elston.

Update: Kyle D. Sampson

I have updated the statement of facts alleging various ethical violations by Kyle D. Sampson of the Utah and Washington, D.C. Rules of Professional Conduct with the recent report, An Investigation of Allegations of Politicized Hiring by Monica Goodling and Other Staff in the Office of the Attorney General, by the United States Department of Justice Office of Professional Responsibility and Office of the Inspector General, which concluded that Kyle D. Sampson engaged in conduct during the course of his employment at the Department Justice that calls into question his fitness to practice law.

Personal Information:

  • Name: Sampson, Kyle D.
  • Bar: Utah
  • ID No: 8112
  • Status: Active

Grievance Information: Utah

Grievance Information: Washington, D.C.

Allegations:

Illegal Utilization of political considerations personally and in conjunction with Monica Goodling in Hiring and Firing Personnel at the Department of Justice in violation of the Hatch Act

As originally reported by Dan Eggen in the Washington Post,

“The Justice Department considered political affiliation in screening applicants for immigration court judgeships for several years until hiring was frozen in December after objections from department lawyers, current and former officials said yesterday. “The disclosures mean that the Justice Department may have violated civil service laws, which prohibit political considerations in hiring, for as long as two years before the tenure of Monica M. Goodling, the former aide to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales who testified about the practice this week. “Goodling told the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that she “crossed the line” in considering political affiliation for several categories of career applicants at Justice, including immigration judges.

* * *

“The department’s hiring practices have come under scrutiny in the furor over the firings last year of nine U.S. attorneys. A Justice Department investigation of the dismissals has been expanded to include whether Goodling and other Gonzales aides improperly took politics into account in hiring for nonpolitical jobs. “Goodling testified that Sampson told her that the department’s Office of Legal Counsel had concluded that immigration judges were not covered by civil service rules. The Justice Department said after her testimony that it had “located no record” of an OLC opinion that reached that conclusion.”

Officials Say Justice Dept. Based Hires on Politics Before Goodling Tenure, Dan Eggen, Washington Post, May 26, 2007

Additional Sources:

Letter regarding Investigation of Kyle Sampson, From U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General, August 24, 2007

Document Shows Widening Probe Into DOJ Hiring , Paul Kane, Washington Post, August 30, 2007

This has now been confirmed by the United States Department of Justice Offices of Professional Responsibility and Office of the Inspector Generals in their report, An Investigation of Allegations of Politicized Hiring by Monica Goodling and Other Staff in the Office of the Attorney General:

We concluded that Sampson violated Department policy and federal law, and committed misconduct, by considering political or ideological affiliations when hiring IJs. Sampson knew that, historically, most IJ hiring was handled by career employees at EOIR. However, he moved that authority from EOIR and placed it in the OAG. Sampson told us that he had understood it was appropriate to consider “political criteria” in selecting IJs. He stated that his understanding was based on a conversation he had with Ohlson in April 2004 about the Attorney General’s direct appointment authority for IJs, combined with advice he claimed to have received from OLC that IJ hiring was not subject to civil service requirements.

However, as detailed above, Ohlson said he did not tell Sampson that direct appointments were exempt from federal civil service laws. Ohlson said he merely noted to Sampson that direct appointments had been used occasionally in the past to appoint IJs. Nor does the evidence support Sampson’s claim that OLC advised him that civil service laws did not apply to the career IJ positions. Neither OLC nor we could find any record of OLC ever providing such advice to Sampson, and the two officials he identified as possible sources of the advice – AAGs Goldsmith and Levin – had no recollection of advising Sampson that civil service laws did not apply to IJ hiring. To the contrary, the evidence showed that neither would have offered legal guidance on this point informally. While it is possible that Sampson mistakenly inferred on his own that civil service laws did not apply to direct appointments by the Attorney General, there is no evidence that he was ever so advised by OLC.

Moreover, as described in the document attached to his October 8, 2003, e-mail, Sampson sought to use the Attorney General’s direct appointment authority to appoint candidates as IJs who had been recommended by the White House and screened using political criteria
well before those conversations with OLC and Ohlson supposedly occurred. It is clear from Sampson’s October 8 e-mail that he contemplated using political considerations in IJ hiring at least 6 months before his conversation with Ohlson; at least 9 months before Levin (one
of the OLC Assistant Attorney Generals he cited as a possible source of OLC’s legal advice) became the head of OLC in July 2004; and before any conversation he had with Goldsmith (the other OLC Assistant Attorney General cited by Sampson), who did not begin serving in OLC until October 3, 2003, just 5 days before Sampson’s e-mail.

In sum, we concluded that the evidence did not support Sampson’s claim that he was advised by OLC that IJ positions were exempt from federal law governing career civil service positions.

Because the Attorney General’s direct appointment authority to hire IJs is a departure from the usual Department career hiring practices, we considered the possibility that Sampson may have been confused or mistaken about whether civil service laws apply to such hires. Yet, even if Sampson was confused or mistaken in his interpretation of the rules that applied to IJ hiring, we do not believe that would excuse his actions. His actions, which were carried out over a lengthy period of time and were not based on formal advice from anyone, systematically violated federal law and Department policy and constituted misconduct.

Report, pp. 117-118.

In sum, the evidence showed that Sampson, Williams, and Goodling violated federal law and Department policy, and Sampson and Goodling committed misconduct, by considering political and ideological affiliations in soliciting and selecting IJs, which are career positions protected by the civil service laws.

Report, p. 137.

Rules Violated (Pursuant to Rule 8.5. Disciplinary Authority; Choice of Law , Utah Rules of Professional Conduct):

  1. Rule 8.4 – Misconduct – This Rule governed the practice of law in the District of Columbia from January 1, 1991, through January 31, 2007. As of February 1, 2007, the New Rules took effect.

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John Yoo

Personal Information:

  • Name: John Yoo
  • Bar: Pennsylvania
  • ID No.: 69500
  • Status: Active

To file a grievance against Mr. Yoo in either or both Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., print and complete the official Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., Complaint Forms, print and attach this page to the Complaint Form and send to the address noted on the forms.

Grievance Information: Pennsylvania

Grievance Information: Washington, D.C.

Allegations:

John Yoo provided advice to his client that violated his ethical obligations to provide independent, professional and competent advice in authoring and issuing the “Torture Memo” in March of 2003. This advice provided violated both the Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct (large .pdf file) and the D.C. Rules of Professional Conduct (effective January 1, 1991 through January 31, 2007), including the following rules:

Pennsylvania:

  • Rule 1.1 Competence: A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.
  • Rule 1.2 Scope of Representation and Allocation of Authority Between Client and Lawyer: (d) A lawyer shall not counsel a client to engage, or assist a client, in conduct that the lawyer knows is criminal or fraudulent, but a lawyer may discuss the legal consequences of any proposed course of conduct with a client and may counsel or assist a client to make a good faith effort to determine the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law.
  • Rule 1.13 Organization as Client: (b) If a lawyer for an organization knows that an officer, employee or other person associated with the organization is engaged in action, intends to act or refuses to act in a matter related to the representation that is a violation of a legal obligation to the organization, or a violation of law which reasonably might be imputed to the organization, and is likely to result in substantial injury to the organization, the lawyer shall proceed as is reasonably necessary in the best interest of the organization.
  • Rule 1.16 Declining or Terminating Representation: (a) Except as stated in paragraph (c), a lawyer shall not represent a client or, where representation has commenced, shall withdraw from the representation of a client if: (1) the representation will result in violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct or other law….
  • Rule 2.1 Advisor: In representing a client, a lawyer should shall exercise independent professional judgment and render candid advice. In rendering advice, a lawyer may refer not only to law but to other considerations such as moral, economic, social and political factors, that may be relevant to the client’s situation.
  • Rule 3.1 Meritorious Claims and Contentions: A lawyer shall not bring or defend a proceeding, or assert or controvert an issue therein, unless there is a basis in law and fact for doing so that is not frivolous, which includes a good faith argument for an extension, modification or reversal of existing law. A lawyer for the defendant in a criminal proceeding, or the respondent in a proceeding that could result in incarceration, may nevertheless so defend the proceeding as to require that every element of the case be established.
  • Rule 4.1 Truthfulness in Statements to Others: In the course of representing a client a lawyer shall not knowingly: (a) make a false statement of material fact or law to a third person; or (b) fail to disclose a material fact to a third person when disclosure is necessary to avoid aiding and abetting a criminal or fraudulent act by a client, unless disclosure is prohibited by Rule 1.6.
  • Rule 5.4 Professional Independence Of A Lawyer: (c) A lawyer shall not permit a person who recommends, employs or pays the lawyer to render legal services for another to direct or regulate the lawyer’s professional judgment in rendering such legal services.
  • Rule 8.5. Disciplinary Authority; Choice of Law: (a) Disciplinary Authority. A lawyer admitted to practice in this jurisdiction is subject to the disciplinary authority of this jurisdiction, regardless of where the lawyer’s conduct occurs. A lawyer not admitted in this jurisdiction is also subject to the disciplinary authority of this jurisdiction if the lawyer provides or offers to provide any legal services in this jurisdiction. A lawyer may be subject to the disciplinary authority of both this jurisdiction and another jurisdiction for the same conduct. (b) Choice of Law. In any exercise of the disciplinary authority of this jurisdiction, the rules of professional conduct to be applied shall be as follows: (1) for conduct in connection with a matter pending before a tribunal, the rules of the jurisdiction in which the tribunal sits shall be applied, unless the rules of the tribunal provide otherwise; and (2) for any other conduct, the rules of the jurisdiction in which the lawyer’s conduct occurred, or, if the predominant effect of the conduct is in a different jurisdiction, the rules of that jurisdiction shall be applied to the conduct. A lawyer shall not be subject to discipline if the lawyer’s conduct conforms to the rules of a jurisdiction in which the lawyer reasonably believes the predominant effect of the lawyer’s conduct will occur.

Washington, D.C.:

  • Rule 1.1 — Competence (a) A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness, and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation. (b) A lawyer shall serve a client with skill and care commensurate with that generally afforded to clients by other lawyers in similar matters.
  • Rule 1.16 – Declining or Terminating Representation (a) Except as stated in paragraph (c), a lawyer shall not represent a client or, where representation has commenced, shall withdraw from the representation of a client if: (1) The representation will result in violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct or other law….
  • Rule 2.1 – Advisor In representing a client, a lawyer shall exercise independent professional judgment and render candid advice. In rendering advice, a lawyer may refer not only to law but to other considerations such as moral, economic, social, and political factors, that may be relevant to the client’s situation.
  • Rule 3.1 – Meritorious Claims and Contentions A lawyer shall not bring or defend a proceeding, or assert or controvert an issue therein, unless there is a basis for doing so that is not frivolous, which includes a good-faith argument for an extension, modification, or reversal of existing law. A lawyer for the defendant in a criminal proceeding, or for the respondent in a proceeding that could result in involuntary institutionalization, shall, if the client elects to go to trial or to a contested fact-finding hearing, nevertheless so defend the proceeding as to require that the government carry its burden of proof.
  • Rule 3.3 – Candor Toward the Tribunal (a) A lawyer shall not knowingly: … (2) Counsel or assist a client to engage in conduct that the lawyer knows is criminal or fraudulent, but a lawyer may discuss the legal consequences of any proposed course of conduct with a client and may counsel or assist a client to make a good-faith effort to determine the validity, scope, meaning, or application of the law.
  • Rule 4.1 – Truthfulness in Statements to Others In the course of representing a client, a lawyer shall not knowingly: (a) Make a false statement of material fact or law to a third person; or (b) Fail to disclose a material fact to a third person when disclosure is necessary to avoid assisting a criminal or fraudulent act by a client, unless disclosure is prohibited by Rule 1.6.
  • Rule 5.4 – Professional Independence of a Lawyer … (c) A lawyer shall not permit a person who recommends, employs, or pays the lawyer to render legal services for another to direct or regulate the lawyer’s professional judgment in rendering such legal services.

Mr. Yoo’s conduct is not the typical conduct that is a violation of the applicable rules of professional conduct, such as stealing from a trust account, failing to communicate with a client or a violating advertising rules. Professor David Luban explains:

Now it happens that one of these rules is labeled “Advisor.” It reads: “In representing a client, a lawyer shall exercise independent professional judgment and render candid advice.”

“Independent” professional judgment means “independent of the client,” as the first comment to the rule makes clear: “Legal advice often involves unpleasant facts and alternatives that a client may be disinclined to confront….However, a lawyer should not be deterred from giving candid advice by the prospect that the advice will be unpalatable to the client.” And “candid” advice means telling the client what the law, in the lawyer’s best judgment, actually means. This rule, too, has an ethical basis. In the first place, it tells lawyers not to chicken out from hard conversations; it’s a requirement of a certain measure of guts. In the second place, it tells the lawyer that as an advisor, he or she is more than an instrument of the client’s will. This is true for lawyers in private practice, but I see no reason at all to think that a lawyer-advisor carries different obligations when the client is White House.

This obligation of the advisor is very different from the standard conception of the lawyer’s role as courtroom advocate. In the courtroom, the lawyer’s job is to press the client’s case, counting on the opposing lawyer to highlight its weaknesses, and on the judge to check the lawyer’s one-sided presentation of the law. In the advice-giving setting, there is no opposing voice and no judge. That’s why, for more than four decades, the codes of responsibility for lawyers have distinguished sharply between the advocate’s role and the advisor’s. The advocate, in the words of the 1969 Code of Professional Responsibility, “should resolve in favor of his client doubts as to the bounds of the law.” But not the advisor: the advisor is supposed to give the law to the client straight.

But what if the client doesn’t want the law straight? There’s an old legal adage attributed to Elihu Root: “The client never wants to be told he can’t do what he wants to do; he wants to be told how to do it, and it is the lawyer’s business to tell him how.” Root was a corporate lawyer, and he was cynically expressing – a century ago – the scofflaw attitude of business people who resent lawyers who say “no.” But lawyers who say yes to whatever the client wants (“Dr. Yes” was reportedly John Ashcroft’s nickname for John Yoo) violate basic ethical norms of what legal advisors are supposed to do. As I’ve written elsewhere, lawyers who write opinions saying yes to whatever their clients want are no better than indulgence sellers.

[Professor] Marty [Lederman] thinks that OLC lawyers are in a fundamentally different relationship with their client than private lawyers of corporate clients. I think that’s partly right – but only partly. The part that’s right is that OLC opinions can bind the executive branch – if not by law, then by custom. That puts OLC opinions on a nearly-equal footing with decisions of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, where most cases involving the executive branch get litigated. The big difference is that the OLC renders its opinions in secret, and without hearing adversarial arguments to satisfy the basic maxim of procedural justice – audi alteram partem , “hear the other side.”

That makes the duties of independence and candor even more crucial. Lawyers whose legal advice – including secret advice – writes the law for the most dangerous branch of government have an awesome responsibility. It’s a responsibility not only to the client and the law, but to a country that is, without knowing it, being governed by twenty unknown lawyers in the Justice Department. (Quite frankly, the OLC is a scandal to democratic government, but that’s a subject for a different day.) Marty is quite right that the OLC’s mission should be to help the President fulfill the duty of faithful execution of the laws. But he’s wrong if he thinks that mission substitutes for the basics of legal ethics. That mission is over and above the duties of legal ethics.

And he’s wrong if he thinks that indulgence-selling is fundamentally different when the lawyers are writing indulgences to the President rather than private clients. Indulgence-selling is fundamentally worse when lawyers are absolving the President rather than Enron – but that’s because the President’s public trust runs deeper, not because the nature of the sin is different.

Marty is a constitutional lawyer, and an extraordinarily good one. If I were to venture a diagnosis, I think that fact makes him suspicious that ethics rules – mere ethics rules – miss the special, exalted status of constitutional lawyering at the upper reaches of government. He thinks that ethics rules don’t capture the refracted sunbeams of the Faithful Execution Clause.

Constitutional law, in the eyes of many, is the Holy of Holies in American law. It’s up there in the Empyrean. Ethics rules, by contrast, are the lowliest of the low. They are court rules rather than statutes, they are state rather than federal, and they govern a million people rather than 300 million. They are also, to be perfectly frank, very dull. Constitutional law is exciting and charismatic. It’s the province of The Supreme Court of the United States. Legal ethics is the province of grubby little grievance committees. It’s what you cram for before you take the multistate professional responsibility exam. (As one of my students remarked some years back, the MPRE is like the written part of the driver’s test.)

The fact is, though, that the ethical conduct of the million lawyers is far more important to the legal system than the journeywork of the nine justices. (Emphasis supplied.) * * *

* * * The law, as the Book of Deuteronomy says, “is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’” The law is very near. It’s what we find in our lawyer’s office on the fourth floor of the Kresge Building, three doors down from the orthodontist. (If you see the Home Depot on your left, you’ve gone too far.) It’s law’s ordinariness, and the extraordinary role that lawyers play in vending it to us, that is precisely why legal ethics is important: if the lawyers are just Holmesian Bad Men and Bad Women following Elihu Root’s cynical advice, the law might as well not be there.

And that is why ethical obligations matter in the Office of Legal Counsel. It’s perhaps odd that the OPR is investigating for violations of the maxim of competence. But it makes a certain amount of sense: a legal opinion that is deeply eccentric in its interpretation of the law is not much different from an opinion written without adequate research. (Emphasis supplied.)

When analyzing whether Mr. Yoo’s conduct comports with applicable Rules, including both the violations described by Professor Luban above the additional violations noted below, it is important to note that his statements of denial are not to be taken at face value in making a determination. Specifically, Rule 1.0 Terminology of the Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct and the D.C. Rules of Professional Conduct: Terminology provide that whether someone ‘believes’ something or whether someone ‘knows’ something is to be inferred from the circumstances and whether the conduct, belief or knowledge of the attorney is ‘reasonable’ or not is based on the “reasonably prudent and competent lawyer”, requires “that the circumstances are such that the belief is reasonable” and “denotes that a lawyer of reasonable prudence and competence would ascertain the matter in question”.

The basic facts of Mr. Yoo’s authorship of The Torture Memo were reported on April 2, 2008, by Dan Eggen and Josh White of The Washington Post:

The Justice Department sent a legal memorandum to the Pentagon in 2003 asserting that federal laws prohibiting assault, maiming and other crimes did not apply to military interrogators who questioned al-Qaeda captives because the president’s ultimate authority as commander in chief overrode such statutes.

The 81-page memo, which was declassified and released publicly yesterday, argues that poking, slapping or shoving detainees would not give rise to criminal liability. The document also appears to defend the use of mind-altering drugs that do not produce “an extreme effect” calculated to “cause a profound disruption of the senses or personality.”

* * *

Nine months after it was issued, Justice Department officials told the Defense Department to stop relying on it. But its reasoning provided the legal foundation for the Defense Department’s use of aggressive interrogation practices at a crucial time, as captives poured into military jails from Afghanistan and U.S. forces prepared to invade Iraq .

Sent to the Pentagon’s general counsel on March 14, 2003, by John C. Yoo, then a deputy in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, the memo provides an expansive argument for nearly unfettered presidential power in a time of war. It contends that numerous laws and treaties forbidding torture or cruel treatment should not apply to U.S. interrogations in foreign lands because of the president’s inherent wartime powers.

“If a government defendant were to harm an enemy combatant during an interrogation in a manner that might arguably violate a criminal prohibition, he would be doing so in order to prevent further attacks on the United States by the al Qaeda terrorist network,” Yoo wrote. “In that case, we believe that he could argue that the executive branch’s constitutional authority to protect the nation from attack justified his actions.”

Interrogators who harmed a prisoner would be protected by a “national and international version of the right to self-defense,” Yoo wrote. He also articulated a definition of illegal conduct in interrogations — that it must “shock the conscience” — that the Bush administration advocated for years.

“Whether conduct is conscience-shocking turns in part on whether it is without any justification,” Yoo wrote, explaining, for example, that it would have to be inspired by malice or sadism before it could be prosecuted.

* * *

The document is similar, although much broader, than a notorious memo primarily written by Yoo in August 2002 that narrowly defined what constitutes illegal torture. That document was also later withdrawn.

In his 2007 book, “The Terror Presidency,” Jack Goldsmith, who took over the Office of Legal Counsel after Yoo departed, writes that the two memos “stood out” for “the unusual lack of care and sobriety in their legal analysis.”

The documents are among the Justice Department legal memoranda that undergirded some of the highly coercive interrogation techniques employed by the Bush administration, including extreme temperatures, head-slapping and a type of simulated drowning called waterboarding.

* * *

Yoo, now a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, defended the memo in an e-mail yesterday, saying the Justice Department altered its opinions “for appearances’ sake.” He said his successors “ignored the Department’s long tradition in defending the President’s authority in wartime.”

“Far from inventing some novel interpretation of the Constitution,” Yoo wrote, “our legal advice to the President, in fact, was near boilerplate.”

Yoo’s 2003 memo arrived amid strong Pentagon debate about which interrogation techniques should be allowed and which might lead to legal action in domestic and international courts.

After a rebellion by military lawyers, then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in December 2002 suspended a list of aggressive techniques he had approved, the most extreme of which were used on a single detainee at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The prisoner, military investigators later would determine, was subjected to stress positions, nudity, hooding, exposure to dogs and other aggressive techniques.

Largely because of Yoo’s memo, however, a Pentagon working group in April 2003 endorsed the continued use of extremely aggressive tactics. The top lawyers for each military service, who were largely excluded from the group, did not receive a final copy of Yoo’s March memo and did not know about the group’s final report for more than a year, officials said.

Thomas J. Romig, who was then the Army’s judge advocate general, said yesterday after reading the memo that it appears to argue there are no rules in a time of war, a concept Romig found “downright offensive.”

* * *

In a 2004 memo for the Navy inspector general’s office, then-General Counsel Alberto J. Mora objected to the ideas that cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment could be allowed at Guantanamo and that the president’s authority is virtually unlimited.

Mora wrote that he spoke with Yoo at the Pentagon on Feb. 6, 2003, and that Yoo “glibly” defended his own memo. “Asked whether the President could order the application of torture, Mr. Yoo responded, ‘Yes,’ ” Mora wrote. Yoo denies saying that.

Glenn Greenwald explains further,on April 2, 2008, how Mr. Yoo’s conduct violated the canons of professional conduct:

Yet again, the ACLU has performed the function which Congress and the media are intended to perform but do not. As the result of a FOIA lawsuit the ACLU filed and then prosecuted for several years, numerous documents relating to the Bush administration’s torture regime that have long been baselessly kept secret were released yesterday, including an 81-page memorandum (.pdf) issued in 2003 by then-Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo (currently a Berkeley Law Professor) which asserted that the President’s war powers entitle him to ignore multiple laws which criminalized the use of torture:

If a government defendant were to harm an enemy combatant during an interrogation in a manner that might arguably violate a criminal prohibition, he would be doing so in order to prevent further attacks on the United States by the al Qaeda terrorist network. In that case, we believe that he could argue that the executive branch’s constitutional authority to protect the nation from attack justified his actions.

As Jane Mayer reported two years ago in The New Yorker — in which she quoted former Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora as saying that “the memo espoused an extreme and virtually unlimited theory of the extent of the President’s Commander-in-Chief authority” — it was precisely Yoo’s torture-justifying theories, ultimately endorsed by Donald Rumsfeld, that were communicated to Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the commander of both Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib at the time of the most severe detainee abuses (the ones that are known).

It is not, of course, news that the Bush administration adopted (and still embraces) legal theories which vest the President with literally unlimited power, including the power to break our laws. There are, though, several points worth noting as a result of the disclosure of this Memorandum:

(1) The fact that John Yoo is a Professor of Law at Berkeley and is treated as a respectable, serious expert by our media institutions, reflects the complete destruction over the last eight years of whatever moral authority the United States possessed. Comporting with long-held stereotypes of two-bit tyrannies, we’re now a country that literally exempts our highest political officials from the rule of law, and have decided that there should be no consequences when they commit serious felonies.

John Yoo’s Memorandum, as intended, directly led to — caused — a whole series of war crimes at both Guantanamo and in Iraq. The reason such a relatively low-level DOJ official was able to issue such influential and extraordinary opinions was because he was working directly with, and at the behest of, the two most important legal officials in the administration: George Bush’s White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, and Dick Cheney’s counsel (and current Chief of Staff) David Addington. Together, they deliberately created and authorized a regime of torture and other brutal interrogation methods that are, by all measures, very serious war crimes.

If writing memoranda authorizing torture — actions which then directly lead to the systematic commission of torture — doesn’t make one a war criminal in the U.S., what does?

* * *

Yoo wasn’t just a law professor theorizing about the legalization of torture. He was a government official who, in concert with other government officials, set out to enable a brutal and systematic torture regime, and did so. If this level of depraved criminality doesn’t remove one from the realm of respectability and mainstream seriousness — if not result in war crimes prosecution — then nothing does.

* * *

(4) Since the Nuremberg Trials, “war criminals” include not only those who directly apply the criminal violence and other forms of brutality, but also government officials who authorized it and military officials who oversaw it. Ironically, the Bush administration itself argued in the 2006 case of Hamdan — when they sought to prosecute as a “war criminal” a Guantanamo detainee whom they allege was a driver for Osama bin Laden — that one is guilty of war crimes not merely by directly violating the laws of war, but also by participating in a conspiracy to do so.

That legal question was unresolved in that case, but Justices Thomas and Scalia both sided with the administration and Thomas wrote (emphasis added):

“[T]he experience of our wars,” Winthrop 839, is rife with evidence that establishes beyond any doubt that conspiracy to violate the laws of war is itself an offense cognizable before a law-of-war military commission. . . . . In [World War II], the orders establishing the jurisdiction of military commissions in various theaters of operation provided that conspiracy to violate the laws of war was a cognizable offense. See Letter, General Headquarters, United States Army Forces, Pacific (Sept. 24, 1945), Record in Yamashita v. Styer, O. T. 1945, No. 672, pp. 14, 16 (Exh. F) (Order respecting the “Regulations Governing the Trial of War Criminals” provided that “participation in a common plan or conspiracy to accomplish” various offenses against the law of war was cognizable before military commissions).

* * *

The fact that a lawyer does something in his capacity as a lawyer does not mean it’s proper, legitimate or legal. The fact that an argument is packaged in lawyerly wrapping doesn’t mean it’s reasonable or offered in good faith. All sorts of lawyers — from those representing crime families to those representing terrorists — have been convicted of crimes because they concealed and/or promoted their clients’ illegal acts. Lawyers aren’t any more immune from the rule of law than anyone else.

Harper‘s Scott Horton makes the point in much the same way:

These memoranda have been crafted not as an after-the-fact defense to criminal charges, but rather as a roadmap to committing crimes and getting away with it. They are the sort of handiwork we associate with the consigliere, or mob lawyer. But these consiglieri are government attorneys who have sworn an oath, which they are violating, to uphold the law.

Along those lines, Marcy Wheeler and Slate’s Emily Bazelon both demonstrate how un-lawyerly Yoo’s opinions were. Yoo wasn’t acting as a lawyer in order legally to analyze questions surrounding interrogation powers. He was acting with the intent to enable illegal torture and used the law as his instrument to authorize criminality.

Professor Marty Lederman explains that Mr. Yoo’s authorship of the Torture Memo was contrary to established federal law and protocol:

I’ve now completed reading the March 14th OLC Opinion. As you might expect, there is a great deal within it that warrants very careful attention and analysis. There is nothing like it in our long legal history, as far as I know. After all, how often is it that a Department of Justice memo is issued that matter-of-factly argues that the Commander in Chief can authorize pouring corrosive acid on a detainee — can authorize cutting out a tongue and poking out an eye — nothwithstanding a statute that would prohibit that very conduct?

* * *

An OLC legal conclusion does establish the official views of the Executive branch unless overruled by the President, the Attorney General, or OLC itself (as Jack Goldsmith did in the last week of 2003). Therefore, it’s a very solemn function for the Office to have. Actually, by law the function has been assigned to the Attorney General ever since the Judiciary Act of 1789; but in recent decades, the AG has delegated the opinion-rendering function to OLC.

Well, not to OLC, exactly, but to an officer of the United States, the “Assistant Attorney General, Office of Legal Counsel.”

On Friday, March 14th, 2003, that officer was Jay Bybee. [UPDATE: Post corrected to reflect fact that Jay Bybee remained AAG on the 13th.] Yet John Yoo issued the Opinion in his own name. John Yoo did not have the legal authority to issue this opinion . . . unless either Jay Bybee or John Ashcroft delegated Yoo the authority to issue such a momentous opinion without the supervision of the head of the office.

* * *

This [the issuance of the March 14, 2003 OLC Opinion under the name of John Yoo] was, in my view, a serious abuse of authority and/or violation of protocol. And it demonstrates exactly why it is so important to abide by such procedural norms — so that an unconfirmed, rogue deputy in OLC can’t just go around offering the most important and ground-shifting legal advice in the Executive branch without that advice having been thoroughly scrubbed and critiqued by others who are more accountable and more seasoned.

Professor Marty Lederman also notes that “[i]n late 2004, new OLC head Jack Goldsmith reviewed the March 2003 memo, was stunned by what he later called the “unusual lack of care and sobriety in [its] legal analysis” — it “seemed more an exercise of sheer power than reasoned analysis” — and immediately called the Pentagon to implore them not to rely upon it. Later, the next head of OLC, Dan Levin, wrote the Pentagon to confirm that they rescind any policies that had been based on the Yoo memo.

Writing about Philippe Sands’s article “The Green Light” in Vanity Fair, which as he notes is a teaser for Sands’ forthcoming book The Torture Team, Scott Horton notes, on April 2, 2008 in his article The Green Light that Mr. Yoo’s conduct does not meet the threshold required by the ‘Adviser’ rules described by Professor Luban, as noted above:

We’ve all heard ad nauseam the Administration’s official torture narrative. This is a different kind of war, they argue. Each invocation of “different” is to a clear point: the Administration wishes to pursue its war unfettered by the laws of war. Unfettered, indeed, by any form or notion of law. But Sands’s work is important because he has looked carefully at the chronology: what came first, the decision to use torture techniques, or the legal rationale for them?

Gonzales and Haynes laid out their case with considerable care. The only flaw was that every element of the argument contained untruths. The real story, pieced together from many hours of interviews with most of the people involved in the decisions about interrogation, goes something like this: The Geneva decision was not a case of following the logic of the law but rather was designed to give effect to a prior decision to take the gloves off and allow coercive interrogation; it deliberately created a legal black hole into which the detainees were meant to fall. The new interrogation techniques did not arise spontaneously from the field but came about as a direct result of intense pressure and input from Rumsfeld’s office. The Yoo-Bybee Memo was not simply some theoretical document, an academic exercise in blue-sky hypothesizing, but rather played a crucial role in giving those at the top the confidence to put pressure on those at the bottom. And the practices employed at Guantánamo led to abuses at Abu Ghraib.

The fingerprints of the most senior lawyers in the administration were all over the design and implementation of the abusive interrogation policies. Addington, Bybee, Gonzales, Haynes, and Yoo became, in effect, a torture team of lawyers, freeing the administration from the constraints of all international rules prohibiting abuse.

Sands notes the focal role that the torture lawyers saw for the Attorney General’s opinion power. It was, as Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith suggested in a recent book, a device that could be used to give a sort of pardon in advance for persons undertaking criminal acts.

And of course, the torture lawyers fully appreciated from the outset that torture was a criminal act. Most of the legal memoranda they crafted, including the March 2003 Yoo memorandum released today, consist largely of precisely the sorts of arguments that criminal defense attorneys make–they weave and bob through the law finding exceptions and qualifications to the application of the criminal law. But there are some major differences: these memoranda have been crafted not as an after-the-fact defense to criminal charges, but rather as a roadmap to committing crimes and getting away with it. They are the sort of handiwork we associate with the consigliere, or mob lawyer. But these consiglieri are government attorneys who have sworn an oath, which they are violating, to uphold the law.

* * *

Of course they missed some things along the way. The legal analyses were so poorly crafted–making the sorts of sophomoric arguments that would land a law student a failing grade on an examination, that Justice was forced to rescind them. (Emphasis supplied.)

* * *

They also missed the established precedent I have cited repeatedly here, namely United States v. Altstoetter, under the rule of which the conduct of the torture lawyers is a criminal act not shielded by any notions of government immunity.

In his response at Balkinization to Boalt (Cal Berkeley) School of Law Dean Chris Edleyn’s defense of John Yoo, Scott Horton explains in more detail why John Yoo should be held to account for additional actions that violate the ‘Adviser’ rules, by failing to even address applicable and established law, let alone distinguish or otherwise explain how it is not relevant:

[T]he facts establish that the torture policies were settled upon and had in fact been implemented. The principal authors were facing severe blow back from career lawyers inside the government. And John Yoo was carted in to use the powers of OLC to silence lawyers protesting the illegality of what was done. I believe that an objective examination of the facts will show that this is precisely how John Yoo understood his role. In essence, he was not an independent legal advisor. He had become a facilitator, an implementor of the torture policies. His role had shifted from passive advisor to actor, pushing a process forward.

Dean Edley then states that the ethical accountability and legal liability of the legal advisor cannot be compared to those of the policy maker. This statement rests on a false understanding of the facts. But it also reflects a misconception of the established law. Indeed, Dean Edley asks what appears to be a rhetorical question:

Did the writing of the memoranda, and his related conduct, violate a criminal or comparable statute?

The answer to that question is “yes.” The liability of an attorney dispensing advice with respect to the treatment of persons under detention in wartime is subject to a special rule. It cannot be viewed in the same manner as advice given in a complex commercial dispute, for instance.

This principle was established by the United States in one of the most dramatic of the post-World War II proceedings, United States v. Altstoetter, the “lawyers’ case.” Following on the guidelines established by Justice Robert H. Jackson, the U.S. chief prosecutor, Telford Taylor, and his deputy, Charles M. La Follette, established clear principles of accountability for lawyers dispensing legal advice in circumstances virtually identical to those faced by John Yoo. There are three major principles relevant to John Yoo’s case that appear from the charge, accepted by the Tribunal. First, the case dealt with persons under detention in wartime (not POWs, in fact most of the cases in question addressed persons not entitled to POW or comparable protections). Second, it had to be reasonably foreseeable that the advice dispensed would result in serious physical or mental harm or death to a number of the persons under detention. Third, the advice given was erroneous. In fact several of the lawyers in Altstoetter were able to articulate far better defenses for their erroneous legal advice that John Yoo had, but the standard did not require it to be “outrageously” false, just incorrect.

Each of these criteria is satisfied with respect to Yoo’s advice under the torture memoranda. They explicitly address persons under detention. It was reasonably foreseeable that persons would suffer serious physical or mental harm or death as a result of the application of the techniques (in fact there have been more than 108 deaths in detention, a significant portion of them tied to torture). And the analysis was false, a point acknowledged ultimately by the OLC itself. Accordingly, a solid basis exists under the standard articulated by the United States under which John Yoo may be charged and brought to trial. * * *

However, my point here is not to make the prosecutor’s case against Yoo. It is to show that what he did raises not merely ethics issues, but actual criminal culpability . * * * (Emphasis supplied).

In addition to the points addressed by Scott Horton above, Phillipe Sands elaborates on Mr. Yoo’s conduct in his article The Green Light. In this case, the issue is Mr. Yoo’s independence. As confirmed by Mr. Feith to Mr. Sands, the purpose of these documents was to permit conduct that was criminal and otherwise forbidden by the Constitution, the Geneva Conventions and federal statutes.

Relating to this was a second document, one that had been the subject of media speculation for some weeks. The authors of this document, a legal opinion dated August 1, 2002, were two lawyers in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel: Jay Bybee, who is now a federal judge, and John Yoo, who now teaches law at Berkeley. Later it would become known that they were assisted in the drafting by David Addington, then the vice president’s lawyer and now his chief of staff. The Yoo-Bybee Memo declared that physical torture occurred only when the pain was “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death,” and that mental torture required “suffering not just at the moment of infliction but … lasting psychological harm.” Interrogations that did not reach these thresholds—far less stringent than those set by international law—were allowed. Although findings that issue from the Office of Legal Counsel at Justice typically carry great weight, at the press conference Gonzales went out of his way to decouple the Yoo-Bybee Memo from anything that might have taken place at Guantánamo. The two lawyers had been asked, in effect, to stargaze, he said. Their memo simply explored “the limits of the legal landscape.” It included “irrelevant and unnecessary” discussion and never made it into the hands of the president or of soldiers in the field. The memo did not, said Gonzales, “reflect the policies that the administration ultimately adopted.”

* * *

In the administration’s account there was no connection between the decision on Geneva and the new interrogation rules later approved by Rumsfeld for Detainee 063; its position on Geneva was dictated purely by the law itself. I asked Feith, just to be clear: Didn’t the administration’s approach mean that Geneva’s constraints on interrogation couldn’t be invoked by anyone at Guantánamo? “Oh yes, sure,” he shot back. Was that the intended result?, I asked. “Absolutely,” he replied. I asked again: Under the Geneva Conventions, no one at Guantánamo was entitled to any protection? “That’s the point,” Feith reiterated. As he saw it, either you were a detainee to whom Geneva didn’t apply or you were a detainee to whom Geneva applied but whose rights you couldn’t invoke. What was the difference for the purpose of interrogation?, I asked. Feith answered with a certain satisfaction, “It turns out, none. But that’s the point.”

That indeed was the point. The principled legal arguments were a fig leaf. The real reason for the Geneva decision, as Feith now made explicit, was the desire to interrogate these detainees with as few constraints as possible. Feith thought he’d found a clever way to do this, which on the one hand upheld Geneva as a matter of law—the speech he made to Myers and Rumsfeld—and on the other pulled the rug out from under it as a matter of reality. Feith’s argument was so clever that Myers continued to believe Geneva’s protections remained in force—he was “well and truly hoodwinked,” one seasoned observer of military affairs later told me.

* * *

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Dunlavey and the others at Guantánamo, interrogation issues had arisen in other quarters. In March 2002 a man named Abu Zubaydah, a high-ranking al-Qaeda official, was captured in Pakistan. C.I.A. director George Tenet wanted to interrogate him aggressively but worried about the risk of criminal prosecution. He had to await the completion of legal opinions by the Justice Department, a task that had been entrusted by Alberto Gonzales to Jay Bybee and John Yoo. “It took until August to get clear guidance on what Agency officers could legally do,” Tenet later wrote. The “clear guidance” came on August 1, 2002, in memos written by Bybee and Yoo, with input from Addington. The first memo was addressed to Gonzales, redefining torture and abandoning the definition set by the 1984 torture convention. This was the Yoo-Bybee Memo made public by Gonzales nearly two years later, in the wake of Abu Ghraib. Nothing in the memo suggested that its use was limited to the C.I.A.; it referred broadly to “the conduct of interrogations outside of the United States.” Gonzales would later contend that this policy memo did “not reflect the policies the administration ultimately adopted,” but in fact it gave carte blanche to all the interrogation techniques later recommended by Haynes and approved by Rumsfeld. The second memo, requested by John Rizzo, a senior lawyer at the C.I.A., has never been made public. It spells out the specific techniques in detail. Dunlavey and his subordinates at Guantánamo never saw these memos and were not aware of their contents.

The lawyers in Washington were playing a double game. They wanted maximum pressure applied during interrogations, but didn’t want to be seen as the ones applying it—they wanted distance and deniability. They also wanted legal cover for themselves.

At The Nation, Professor Stephen Gillers adds in The Torture Memo that Mr. Yoo was neither independent nor competent in rendering his legal advice on torture:

In his book The Terror Presidency, [Bybee’s successor, Jack] Goldsmith, now a Harvard law professor, writes that the torture memos had “no foundation” in any “source of law” and rested on “one-sided legal arguments.”

* * *

How could two really smart guys authorize torture using “one-sided legal arguments” that have “no foundation” in law? How could they be guilty of a “stunning failure of lawyerly craft”? The sad answer seems to be that they knew what the President wanted and delivered: torture is OK if you call it something else. Detainees are outside the protection of due process and civilized law. The President’s authority is close to absolute. Anyway, no court can review him. (On this last point, the Supreme Court disagreed.)

* * *

So maybe the best and brightest lawyers got it so wrong because they forgot whom they served. Maybe they acted politically, not professionally. If so, we are dealing with a perversion of law and legal duty, a betrayal of the client and professional norms, not mere incompetence, which would be bad enough. Whatever the reason, Jarrett should find that this work is not “consistent with the professional standards that apply to Department of Justice attorneys.” [H. Marshall] Jarrett[, counsel for the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility,] must hold the lawyers accountable if he means to restore OLC’s reputation and vindicate the rule of law.

Finally, at Balkinization, Professor John Balkin asks whether John Yoo and Jay Bybee violated the canons of professional ethics. In drawing his conclusion, Professor Balkin considered, among others, the Gillers and Horton arguments that I highlighted above, and writes:

My own conclusion is that Yoo and Bybee did violate their professional obligations to the President as constitutional actor, and to the country as a whole. The reason is a combination of their outrageous theory of presidential dictatorship and their all too eager assistance in what appears to be a conspiracy to commit war crimes. But I do not pretend that the question is at all an easy one.

Note that even if I am right that Yoo violated the canons of professional ethics, he has not been sanctioned by any court or professional organization, much less convicted of any crime by a domestic court or international tribunal. This is important to keep in mind in the debate over whether the University of California should discipline or investigate him.

Mr. Yoo has engaged in conduct that is not independent, not competent and not reasonable. His conduct, including but not limited to the facts and analysis described above, is a violation of the rules of professional conduct of both Pennsylvania and California and more than amply demonstrates that he is unfit to practice law. Take action: file a grievance.

Text and comments of the Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., Rules of Professional Conduct violated by Mr. Yoo

It’s not paranoia if they ARE out to get you

The Washington Post’s Dan Eggen reported yesterday that

A federal grand jury in Alexandria has issued a subpoena seeking information about the confidential sources of a newspaper journalist who wrote in a 2006 book about alleged CIA efforts to infiltrate Iran’s nuclear program.

The Jan. 24 subpoena ordered the reporter, James Risen of the New York Times, to appear before the grand jury next Thursday, said David N. Kelley, Risen’s attorney. Kelley, a former U.S. attorney in New York, said Risen plans to resist the order.

Glenn Greenwald then correctly described Attorney General Michael Mukasey’s involvement and the dangers presented by this tactic:

Although there are still facts missing — such as whether this Subpoena was actually approved by Mukasey rather than Gonzales — it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the Grand Jury Subpoena was done at least with Mukasey’s assent. It seems rather clearly to signify the intent of his Justice Department to more aggressively pursue reporters who disclose information embarrassing to the President.

It’s hard to overstate how threatening this behavior is. The Bush administration has erected an unprecedented wall of secrecy around everything it does. Beyond illegal spying, if one looks at the instances where we learned of lawbreaking and other forms of lawless radicalism — CIA black sites, rendition programs, torture, Abu Ghraib, pre-war distortion of intelligence, destruction of CIA torture videos — it is, in every case, the by-product of two forces: government whistleblowers and reporters willing to expose it.

Grand Jury Subpoenas such as the one issued to Risen have as their principal purpose shutting off that avenue of learning about government wrongdoing — the sole remaining avenue for a country plagued by a supine, slothful, vapid press and an indescribably submissive Congress. Mukasey has quickly demonstrated that he has no interest in investigating and pursuing lawbreaking by high government officials, but now, he (or at least the DOJ he leads) seems to be demonstrating something even worse: a burgeoning interest in investigating and pursuing those who expose such governmental lawbreaking and turning those whistleblowers and investigative journalists into criminals.

This is yet another example of this administration improperly using the force of law, i.e., investigation, prosecution and jailing of its critics, to cover its track. Risen is on his way to being Siegelmanned, which is exactly what I’m trying to avoid by remaining anonymous. Especially since I don’t have the resources of Simon & Schuster available to me like Risen does.

Greenwald added this in an update:

An emailer sums up the situation nicely:

So, let me see if I get this straight. The Congress issues subpoenas to former [and current] Bush officials to testify about administration conduct. Said officials ignore the subpoenas. Nothing happens.

Administration, via grand jury, issues subpoena, Risen is threatened with jail.

What’s wrong with this picture?

That’s rather accurate.

This is one of the few points from Greenwald with which I disagree. Anyone, whether a resident of Texas or not, can file a grievance against Harriet E. Miers. Furthermore, if you are an attorney licensed by the Texas Bar Association, you have an ethical obligation to report misconduct. Rule 8.03 Reporting Professional Misconduct, Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct (large .pdf file).

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