By Spencer Ackerman – The Guardian.
Office of Special Counsel received complaint against Comey and says ‘in general’ it opens cases into allegations of interfering with elections.
By publicly discussing a renewed investigative focus on Hillary Clinton, the FBI director, James Comey, has placed himself in the crosshairs of a federal inquiry into whether he has interfered in an election, the Guardian has learned.
The Office of Special Counsel (OSC), an independent federal investigative agency, cited longstanding policy in neither confirming nor denying any the existence of investigation into Comey for violating the Hatch Act, a law designed to prevent federal officeholders from abusing their power to influence an election.
But on Saturday, Richard Painter, a former ethics lawyer in George W Bush’s White House, filed an official complaint against Comey with the office, and then disclosed it in an op-ed.
“In general, OSC opens a case after receiving a complaint,” said spokesman Nick Schwellenbach, who would not comment specifically on Comey.
Such investigations can take anywhere from days to months, depending on the complexity of the circumstances.
Comey’s Friday letter to Congress, which said the FBI was examining newly discovered information for potential relevance to Clinton’s use of a private email server, which contained classified information, has placed a widely respected FBI director in extraordinary political jeopardy.
Should the OSC find Comey to have violated the Hatch Act, the relevant law determining any potential punishment for a Senate-confirmed presidential appointee – such as Comey – places authority for that decision with the president. Should Clinton win the presidency, she may find herself in a position to determine what the law calls “appropriate action” for an FBI director who is slated to serve until 2023.
In recent years, the OSC has cited two cabinet-level Obama administration appointees, health and human services secretary Kathleen Sebelius and housing and urban development secretary Julian Castro, for Hatch Act violations. Neither finding ended their tenures. Castro remains in his post and Sebelius served for two more years before stepping down.
The likely Hatch Act investigation adds to a swarm of headaches for Comey, who awoke on Monday to repudiation from former allies.
Eric Holder, the former attorney general who worked beside Comey at the beginning of his time as FBI director, wrote a public rebuke in the Washington Post, warning that Comey had jeopardized “public trust in both the Justice Department and the FBI”.
Holder criticized Comey for high-profile interventions in the election, first through his July press conference recommending against indicting Clinton, and now through casting “public suspicion” on her.
“It is incumbent upon him – or the leadership of the department – to dispel the uncertainty he has created before Election Day,” Holder wrote.
Holder also joined nearly 100 former federal prosecutors in blasting Comey for inviting “considerable, uninformed public speculation” about the Clinton case before establishing, by the FBI director’s admission, investigative relevance. The letter, circulated by the Clinton campaign, refrained from characterizing Comey’s motivations but said he had compromised the “non-partisan traditions” of the department and the FBI.
Comey informed Congress of the renewed FBI attention on Clinton before obtaining a warrant, which the FBI now possesses, to search for ties to Clinton’s private email server on electronic communications found on a laptop shared by Clinton aide Huma Abedin and her estranged husband, disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner. Over the weekend, justice department officials began leaking that the US attorney general, Loretta Lynch, had advised Comey against going public with the potential connection.
The Clinton campaign and the Democratic establishment have unloaded on Comey, months after praising him for declining an indictment recommendation. Four powerful senators, all of whom are likely to become committee chairs should the Democrats win the chamber next week, have demanded a briefing from Comey on the Clinton saga by the end of Monday, though it is unclear if the director will provide one. The Senate’s top Democrat, Harry Reid, openly accused Comey of breaking the law to help elect Donald Trump.
The FBI learned of a potential connection to the Clinton server weeks ago, after opening an investigation into Weiner allegedly sending messages of a sexual nature to an underage girl.
Comey’s allies contend he is caught in an impossible position. To stay silent before an election in the face of potentially significant developments in the Clinton case would invite a torrent of Republican congressional hearings. To speak publicly of an explosive investigation, particularly before establishing relevance, is to insert the FBIinto the election days before the vote.
“It’s really, right now, it’s a no-win situation,” said Ed Shaw, who in 2014 retired from the FBI after a 25-year career. “He’s made everybody mad at him.”
Only once in the FBI’s 100-plus year history has a president fired a director. Bill Clinton, husband of the Democratic presidential nominee, fired William S Sessions in 1993, after Sessions faced rebuke on ethics charges and abusing government funds. Bill Clinton went on to have a tumultuous relationship with the man he chose to replace Sessions, Louis Freeh, whose FBI investigated the president.
Shaw believed Comey could survive the intensifying political firestorm, owing to his 10-year term, but said the FBI would start off a potential Clinton administration in a difficult position.
“I don’t think any government bureaucracy wants to find itself in this kind of a situation as an institution,” he said.