U.S. prosecutors are investigating whether several individuals offered political contributions in exchange for a presidential pardon, according to an unsealed court document.
The names of the people under investigation were blacked out in the document.
The disclosure of an alleged attempt to purchase a pardon comes as Donald Trump’s presidential term winds to an end, traditionally a time when pardons are meted out. Trump’s prior pardons have stirred controversy, including his decision to grant them to former Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona and former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. Last week, Trump announced that he was pardoning former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
The partially redacted opinion unsealed on Tuesday by U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell in Washington said the Justice Department was investigating a “bribery conspiracy” in which an unidentified person would “offer a substantial political contribution in exchange for a presidential pardon or reprieve of sentence.”
The Justice Department was also investigating whether two unnamed individuals had acted as lobbyists to White House officials without complying with registration requirements, Howell, the court’s chief judge, wrote.
The opinion, dated Aug. 28, was in response to a government request to review attorney-client communications related to the probe.
The judge wrote that the scheme involved “intermediaries to deliver the proposed bribe,” and noted that the government hoped to present the evidence it had gathered to three unnamed individuals, at least one of whom is a lawyer.
Howell’s opinion provides few other details about the possible bribery scheme, and no one appears to have been charged as part of the investigation. But, according to the opinion, the person seeking a pardon surrendered to the custody of the Bureau of Prisons, suggesting that person has already been convicted of a crime.
‘Who Is It?’
“The $10,000 question is — who is it?,” said former federal prosecutor Jennifer Rodgers. “Is it someone who would be in a position to implicate the president in anything?”
She said she didn’t think that was necessarily the case because President Donald Trump has proven himself eager to help out the people closest to him — or those who pose a possible threat — so no bribe would be necessary.
No government official was or is currently a subject or target of the investigation disclosed in the court filing, a Justice Department official said.
The origins of the probe appear to lie in a separate investigation that the Justice Department was pursuing before it unearthed evidence of bribery.
Using search warrants issued in that separate inquiry, the government seized more than 50 “digital media devices,” including iPhones, iPads, laptops, thumb drives and computer and external hard drives, according to Howell’s opinion. Emails recorded on those devices provided evidence of the bribery scheme, the judge said.
The government asked Howell to allow investigators to access communications that might be shielded from scrutiny by attorney-client privilege. In the unsealed opinion, Howell agreed to allow the government to examine those communications, ruling that the documents at issue are “not protected by the attorney-client or any other privilege.”
“This political strategy to obtain a presidential pardon was ‘parallel’ to and distinct from [redacted’s] role as an attorney-advocate for [redacted],” the judge wrote.
Offering pardons for campaign contributions would be a crime, said Harry Sandick, a former federal prosecutor in New York.
“While the presidential pardon power is absolute, selling pardons is prohibited by federal bribery law,” Sandick said in an interview. “This investigation may well linger into the next administration.”
Since the election, lawyers and lobbyists across the country have mobilized on behalf of a wide range of clients to secure pardons. On Nov. 25, Trump pardoned Flynn, who has twice pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. Many more pardons are expected in the coming weeks.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani discussed with him as recently as last week the possibility of receiving a pre-emptive pardon before Trump leaves office.
–With assistance from Chris Strohm.