Ousted former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) Geoffrey Berman testified before Congress on Thursday about how Attorney General Bill Barr went about orchestrating his firing. Berman described what, to some, sounded like a thinly veiled threat.
“The Attorney General said that if I did not resign from my position I would be fired,” Berman told the House Judiciary Committee in his opening statement. “He added that getting fired from my job would not be good for my resume or future job prospects. I told him that while I did not want to get fired, I would not resign.”
Legal experts were appalled at the description of the pressure brought to bear on the onetime SDNY head.
Civil Rights lawyer Sasha Samberg-Champion, who previously worked in the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) said that he didn’t “see anything subtle about” Barr’s threat to Berman.
“It’s a clear threat to fire Berman (as eventually happened),” Samberg-Champion told Law&Crime in an email. “With respect to Berman’s resume and job prospects, I read this more as a prediction (and a bad one, frankly) rather than a threat.”
National security and federal employment attorney Bradley P. Moss also criticized Barr for leaning on the once-powerful prosecutor.
“Although it is plausible AG Barr’s comments were meant to be construed in traditional Beltway parlance, it is difficult given the circumstances to rule out the likelihood they contained an implied ‘nice career, be a shame if anything happened to it’ threat,” Moss told Law&Crime. “It remains unclear what exactly was the big rush to push out Berman, and that reality is what is driving so much of the concern about the Attorney General’s motives and actions.”
The SDNY chief’s departure was unannounced unceremoniously on June 19 when Barr issued a false press release claiming Berman had submitted his resignation. But that was actually not the case at all.
Rather, Barr had apparently grown frustrated after his efforts to secure Berman’s resignation proved unsuccessful and he attempted to force the issue–hoping that Berman would simply walk away from leading the nation’s premier U.S. Attorney’s Office. He did not do so.
Instead of a quiet departure, Berman, a court-appointed U.S. Attorney, raised a ruckus and defiantly saying that Barr didn’t have the authority to fire him. He also said he would remain in his position until “a presidentially appointed nominee is confirmed by the Senate.” President Donald Trump fired Berman the next day.
The blaring headlines and intrigue immediately elicited congressional attention–resulting in one of the fastest oversight turnarounds for the typically trepidatious and often supine 116th Congress.
The forced out attorney’s testimony also implicated Barr in what amounts to bog standard beltway influence-peddling.
“The Attorney General pressed me to take the Civil Division position, saying that the role would be a good resume builder,” Berman told the committee. “He said that I should want to create a book of business once I returned to the private sector, which that role would help achieve. He also stated that I would just have to sit there for five months and see who won the election before deciding what came next for me.”
Samberg-Champion was floored by this account of the 77th and 85th attorney general’s actions.
“While the revolving door between business and government is always potentially problematic, you rarely see government officials describe the monetization of government service in such crass terms,” he said. “As a former DOJ lawyer, I was really taken aback by this.”
[image via Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images]
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