US Justice Department probed Trump fund-raiser, Kushner's lawyer for alleged bribe for clemency scheme

President Donald Trump tweeted earlier that the investigation was "fake news." PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The Justice Department investigated as recently as this past summer the roles of a top fund-raiser for President Donald Trump and a lawyer for his son-in-law, Mr Jared Kushner, in a suspected scheme to offer a bribe in exchange for clemency for a tax crimes convict, according to two people familiar with the inquiry.

A federal judge in Washington unsealed heavily redacted court documents on Tuesday (Dec 1) that disclosed the existence of the investigation into possible unregistered lobbying and bribery.

The people said it concerned efforts by the lawyer for Mr Kushner, Mr Abbe Lowell, and the fund-raiser, Elliott Broidy, who pleaded guilty in October to a charge related to a different scheme to lobby the Trump administration.

A billionaire San Francisco real estate developer, Sanford Diller, enlisted their help in securing clemency for a Berkeley psychologist, Hugh Baras, who had received a 30-month prison sentence on a conviction of tax evasion and improperly claiming Social Security benefits, according to the filing and the people familiar with the case.

Under the suspected scheme, Diller would make "a substantial political contribution" to an unspecified recipient in exchange for the pardon. He died in February 2018, and there is no evidence that the effort continued after his death.

As part of the effort, someone approached the White House Counsel's Office to "ensure" that the "clemency petition reached the targeted officials," according to the court documents. They did not say who made the contact or how the White House responded.

Baras did not receive clemency.

No bribe was paid, said Mr Reid Weingarten, a friend of and lawyer for Mr Lowell who confirmed his client had represented Baras in his unsuccessful efforts to avoid incarceration. Baras went to prison in June 2017 and was released in August 2019.

No one has been charged in the inquiry. No government officials are "currently a subject or target of the investigation disclosed in this filing," a Justice Department official said. This summer, investigators sought communications related to the scheme to "confront" the people they were scrutinising, the court documents showed.

A White House spokesman did not return an email seeking comment, and a Justice Department spokesman declined to comment. Mr Trump tweeted earlier that the investigation was "fake news."

Mr Weingarten said he spoke to department officials who left him "with the impression they had absolutely no concerns with Mr Lowell's conduct." "This is much ado about precious little," Mr Weingarten added. "They investigated and concluded that nothing was amiss. In addition, prosecutors did not have the slightest issue with Abbe."

Mr Weingarten said that Mr Lowell had never asked Mr Kushner to help with Baras' case or any other matter related to clemency, and added that Mr Lowell's work for Baras ended before he started representing Mr Kushner.

A spokesman for Broidy did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Mr Marc Zilversmit, a lawyer who represented Baras at trial and in appeals, said he was not Baras' lawyer "for the purposes of a pardon" but otherwise declined to comment.

The people familiar with the case spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to publicly discuss it.

The scheme outlined by prosecutors underscores the transactional nature of Mr Trump's term, where people leveraged connections to him or framed their causes in terms of his personal or political benefit to influence his decisions.

Presidents have unchecked authority over clemency, and there is a history of donors or their family members getting pardons. No law bars people from lobbying for pardons, nor is it necessarily illegal to give a donation to a president after receiving a pardon. But bribery laws prohibit explicitly predicating donations or other gifts of value to the granting of a pardon.

Prosecutors contended in the court papers that because the participants in the effort did not register as lobbyists, it could violate both lobbying laws and bribery laws.

The filings unsealed this week by Chief Judge Beryl Howell of the US District Court for the District of Columbia, set off a flurry of intense speculation in Washington and theories involving high-profile convicts.

But the case relates to the conviction of Baras, 77, who was sentenced in 2014 and ordered to pay restitution of about US$594,000 (S$792,200) for tax evasion and illegally claiming disability insurance benefits to which he was not entitled from the Social Security Administration.

Baras fought the conviction for years, suing to vacate, set aside or reduce his sentence. His lawyer sought to appeal up to the Supreme Court, arguing Baras was deprived of a fair trial partly because the court declined to allow him to present evidence that he made an effort to pay his back taxes and to pay back the improperly received disability benefits. The Supreme Court declined to take the case and Baras reported to prison in June 2017.

At some point during his fight, Diller took up his cause. He spoke of Baras having helped him in some way and he felt obliged to return the favour, according to one of Diller's sons, Bradley Diller.

"This was his thing," Mr Bradley Diller said. "I don't know what the history of his relationship with Hugh Baras was, why he felt this kind of personal obligation, but he was making a kind of huge effort to help out this person."

While Sanford Diller had trained as a lawyer, he was not practicing and did not appear in court filings as working on Baras' behalf.

Sanford Diller knew Broidy through Republican Jewish donor circles, according to a person familiar with their relationship. Both donated to conservative and hawkish foreign policy groups, including the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

While Diller gave US$133,400 to Republican Party committees in 2016, there is no record of a donation from him to Mr Trump's campaign. With the exception of US$23,400 in donations to Republican Senate candidates in 2014, Diller did not have a lengthy track record of Republican giving before that.

Broidy, a California businessman who owns a defence contracting firm based in Virginia, had helped raise money for Mr Trump's 2016 campaign, and after the election, he became a top fund-raising official for Mr Trump's inauguration and the Republican National Committee, as well as a member of Mr Trump's private South Florida club, Mar-a-Lago.

Broidy marketed his access to Mr Trump to potential business partners and others seeking favor from the administration, including foreign governments and interests in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

It is not clear how Mr Lowell became involved. He was well-known for his ties to Mr Kushner.

Mr Weingarten said the events took place in 2017. He played down the potential bribery scheme, saying that Mr Lowell's role "was simply as a routine lawyer who advocated on behalf of his client unsuccessfully." Mr Weingarten said that he believed the allegations came to light after federal investigators examined an array of Broidy's communications.

Ms Howell said in her order that emails "indicating additional criminal activity" among the people involved in the pardon issue were discovered while investigators examined over 50 devices - including iPhones, iPads, laptops, thumb drives and hard drives - that were seized in a separate investigation.

Broidy's efforts to influence the administration had become the subject of federal investigations by the summer of 2018.

He had resigned that April as deputy finance chairman of the Republican National Committee after the revelation that he had agreed to pay US$1.6 million to a former Playboy model who became pregnant during an affair.

Broidy pleaded guilty in October to conspiring to violate the Foreign Agents Registration Act as part of a covert campaign to influence the Trump administration on behalf of Chinese and Malaysian interests.

Broidy, 63, agreed to forfeit US$6.6 million to the federal government and to cooperate with prosecutors on a range of potential investigations related to his fellow conspirators and others.

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