Writing in a op-ed for Today’s New York Times, the chief White House Ethics Lawyer in the Bush Administration from 2005-2007 explained why he filed a complaint yesterday against FBI Director James Comey.
The complaint was filed by Richard Painter with the FBI’s Office of Special Counsel, an internal investigations unit which examines possible ethics violations. According to Painter, Comey’s actions could justify his potential prosecution for abuse of power under the Hatch Act.
I have spent much of my career working on government ethics and lawyers’ ethics, including two and a half years as the chief White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, and I never thought that the F.B.I. could be dragged into a political circus surrounding one of its investigations. Until this week.
The Hatch Act forbids a government official from using his/her position to influence an election, regardless of intent.
The rules are violated if it is obvious that the official’s actions could influence the election, there is no other good reason for taking those actions, and the official is acting under pressure from persons who obviously do want to influence the election.
On Friday, the director of the F.B.I., James B. Comey, sent to members of Congress a letter updating them on developments in the agency’s investigation of Mrs. Clinton’s emails, an investigation which supposedly was closed months ago. This letter, which was quickly posted on the internet, made highly unusual public statements about an F.B.I. investigation concerning a candidate in the election.
The letter was sent in violation of a longstanding Justice Department policy of not discussing specifics about pending investigations with others, including members of Congress. According to some news reports on Saturday, the letter was sent before the F.B.I. had even obtained the search warrant that it needed to look at the newly discovered emails. And it was sent days before the election, at a time when many Americans are already voting.
Violations of the Hatch Act and of government ethics rules on misuse of official positions are not permissible in any circumstances, including in the case of an executive branch official acting under pressure from politically motivated members of Congress. Such violations are of even greater concern when the agency is the F.B.I.
Painter reiterated that Comey’s actions are consistent with violations of the Hatch Act and also may violate prosecutor obligations under the Rules of Professional Conduct.
This is is no trivial matter. We cannot allow F.B.I. or Justice Department officials to unnecessarily publicize pending investigations concerning candidates of either party while an election is underway. That is an abuse of power. Allowing such a precedent to stand will invite more, and even worse, abuses of power in the future.
Read the entire op-ed here.