Justice Department Says Snafu Delayed Whitaker's Financial Forms

(Bloomberg) -- The Justice Department blamed a delay in releasing financial disclosure forms for Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker on a bureaucratic snafu in a letter to Congress on Wednesday.

Whitaker had faced criticism for the hold-up in making his financial disclosure public after he was chosen by President Donald Trump last month to replace Jeff Sessions as the nation’s top law enforcement official.

But Lee Lofthus, the department’s top ethics official, said in the letter that the delay was due to an administrative error within the Justice Department’s ethics office.

“While review work was begun on Mr. Whitaker’s submissions, due to administrative error in our Ethics Office, the review of his reports was not finalized and his reports were not certified in a timely manner,” according to the letter obtained by Bloomberg News.

The filings released last month showed that Whitaker was paid more than $900,000 by a conservative non-profit in the months before joining the Justice Department in 2017.

A group of Senate Democrats asked the Justice Department on Dec. 4 to provide information about potentially serious financial and political conflicts of interest that Whitaker might have. Their request included providing details about his financial disclosure forms and whether Whitaker had been advised to recuse himself from being in charge of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

"Information we have learned about Mr. Whitaker from DOJ and through media reports demonstrates why your offices must complete a prompt and thorough assessment of Mr. Whitaker’s financial, professional, and political conflicts of interest, and make public that assessment, as well as any related recusals, waivers, and authorizations," the senators wrote in a letter to Lofthus.

The senators also requested information about potential conflicts of interest related to Brian Benczkowski, head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, including whether he was also recused from the Mueller investigation.

Ethics Advice

Lofthus didn’t address the recusal issues in his response letter. He said the department would respond separately to that request and to other information being sought. He didn’t provide a time frame for doing so.

The Justice Department has refused to publicly say whether Whitaker has sought ethics advice on whether he should recuse himself from the Mueller investigation.

Department officials have instead referred to a statement issued last month that said "Whitaker is fully committed to following all appropriate processes and procedures at the Department of Justice, including consulting with senior ethics officials on his oversight responsibilities and matters that may warrant recusal."

So far in his time as acting attorney general, Whitaker hasn’t tried to direct or control anything related to the Mueller investigation, but he hasn’t ruled out being involved at some point, said a person familiar with the matter.

Whitaker’s financial disclosure forms make clear that his main income in the years immediately before Trump’s election came from his role as the executive director of a nonprofit called the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, or FACT, which he joined in 2014.

Financed by a conservative megafund whose donors are undisclosed, FACT hired right-leaning firms for publicity and legal services. At the group, Whitaker oversaw attacks on several of Trump’s favorite targets, including Democrats Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris.

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