Justice Department puts Brooklyn prosecutor atop Ukraine probes

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 16: U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Richard Donoghue speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Attorney's office, July 16, 2019 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. The U.S. Justice Department announced they will not bring federal charges against NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner. Pantaleo put Eric Garner in a chokehold for 15 seconds while arresting him on suspicion of selling single cigarettes from packs without tax stamps. Wednesday is the 5th anniversary of the death of Garner. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The Justice Department has assigned the top prosecutor in Brooklyn to coordinate Ukraine-related investigations, according to a memo released Tuesday to Congress, bringing a new layer of Washington supervision to an area of interest that has become a political minefield.

The move potentially gives Attorney General William Barr a way to keep a tighter rein on investigations that could be politically sensitive.

Richard Donoghue, the US attorney in the Eastern District of New York, will “coordinate existing matters” and “assess, investigate, and address any other matters relating to Ukraine, including the opening of any new investigations or the expansion of existing ones,” according to the memo, sent last month by the deputy attorney general to senior Justice Department officials.

Manhattan US attorney Geoffrey Berman is investigating Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, along with associates who played a role in his efforts to dig up political dirt on the Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, in Ukraine.

But Justice Department officials in Washington have chafed at the way the Manhattan prosecutors have revealed politically explosive developments in high-profile cases associated with President Donald Trump, according to Justice officials.

Berman briefs Barr periodically on the Giuliani investigation, but Barr has not been involved in the case, Justice officials have said.

Appointing someone outside of Manhattan to help coordinate Ukraine issues could have the effect of making sure that Justice Department headquarters in Washington has more visibility and fewer surprises from the Southern District of New York prosecutors, who traditionally have acted with more independence, earning the office the internal nickname the Sovereign District of New York.

It’s not clear what cases will fall under Donoghue’s purview but in the memo, Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen says there are “several distinct open investigations being handled” by different US attorneys offices and law enforcement components in the Justice Department.

Donoghue is already “handling certain Ukraine-related matters,” Rosen said.

Under the new policy, any new matter relating to Ukraine that arises should be directed to Donoghue’s office “for investigation and appropriate handling,” the memo states.

In an accompanying letter sent to House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, the top Justice Department liaison to Capitol Hill writes that the cases have been “publicly reported,” but did not elaborate.

The investigation into Giuliani and his Soviet-born associates in the Southern District of New York is the highest profile Justice Department case involving Ukraine and already produced political reverberations, factoring into the recent impeachment inquiry.

Meanwhile, a number of other Justice Department outposts have recently brought or furthered other cases that touch on Ukraine, ranging from financial probes targeting Ukrainian oligarchs to cybercrime takedowns.

The 93 US attorneys leading federal districts across the country, as well as the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies under the Justice Department, all report up to the deputy attorney general’s office in Washington, and would typically present the office with significant investigative steps in certain high-level cases before they are made.

“Any widening or expansion of existing matters,” relating to Ukraine, the memo says, will now require sign-off by Rosen’s office and the Eastern District of New York.

“We are implementing this policy to avoid duplication of efforts across Offices and components, to obviate the need for deconfliction at a later stage of potentially overlapping investigations, and to efficiently marshal the resources of the Department to address the appropriate handling of potentially relevant new information,” Rosen wrote.

Donoghue, a former assistant US attorney in the Brooklyn office who was appointed to the position by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2018, joins a list of US attorneys who have been tapped by Justice Department leadership to handle sensitive topics in a fashion that may appease the White House while maintaining a level of credibility and independence. CNN reported last week that the top federal prosecutor in St. Louis was enlisted by Barr to re-examine aspects of the FBI investigation into Michael Flynn, the formal national security adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to investigators.

The top federal prosecutor in Pittsburgh, Scott Brady, has been assigned to “assist in the receipt, processing, and preliminary analysis of new information provided by the public that may be relevant to matters relating to Ukraine,” according to the Nadler letter.

Barr had said earlier this month that he created the special intake process in Pittsburgh to help vet information including material gathered by Giuliani that originates in Ukraine, which he called a dubious source.

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