A new Project On Government Oversight report found that at least one-third of the major donors of Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to be Attorney General of the United States, have matters involving the Department of Justice (DOJ).
Senator Sessions, if confirmed, could be put in the position of deciding whether or not to investigate or prosecute his previous financial supporters. The report examines his major donors that have matters involving the DOJ and outlines steps Senator Sessions could take to avoid impropriety or the appearance of it.
As head of the DOJ, the Attorney General has “practically unrestricted” discretion over many Department activities. Such unrestricted discretion is concerning in cases that involve entities the AG has relationships with, and is made even more concerning because many DOJ decisions are not transparent. In order to avoid potential conflicts of interest and to ensure the confidence of the public, the report recommends that Senator Sessions recuse himself from “any matter involving a donor from the last two years or any donor who gave more than $5,000 in the last decade.”
Of the 286 top donors, fully one-third (97) have current, known matters involving the Department of Justice. Fifty-six have a lawsuit, active consent decree/settlement, or public investigation pending before DOJ; a further 20 are large lobbying firms that tout their access to and ability to lobby DOJ; another 12 are major trade associations that represent members who are being sued or investigated by DOJ; and 9 are companies that are government contractors with current or recent contracts with DOJ.
If confirmed, Senator Sessions would be only the fourth politician in the last fifty years who conducted recent fundraising activity before becoming Attorney General. In order to assure the public that the potential conflicts raised by the donations are being taken seriously, Senator Sessions should commit to a process for evaluating his campaign finance record and any resulting ethical issues in advance of taking his oath of office. He should agree to a bright-line recusal rule and to following clear ethical standards that will avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest with previous financial supporters.
Senator Sessions is in the unique position to serve as a model for all prosecutors in the United States for how to handle the complex question of campaign fundraising and its impact on the impartial administration of justice. Today, the procedures and ethical standards followed by the Attorney General, most state attorneys general, and, for that matter, by elected local county and city prosecutors are unclear. There are no established best practices. We have been unable to find a comprehensive legal analysis of the ethical questions. It is a vacuum waiting to be filled. The public’s confidence in the fair and impartial administration of justice depends upon how Senator Sessions acts.