Jul 25 2017
Washington—Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) today spoke at a hearing to consider the nomination of Brian Benczkowski to lead the Justice Department’s Criminal Division:
Feinstein’s remarks follow:
“I want to thank the chairman for holding hearings on nominees once blue slips have been returned, which is the same policy that he and Chairman Leahy applied during the Obama administration. And I thank you for that Mr. Chairman. Your standing by it is important and appreciated. In my longer statement I also outline some concerns I have with Mr. Schwartz’s nomination.
I understand he has never litigated in the court he is being nominated for, nor is he even admitted to practice before that court. However, this morning I’d like to focus my time on the nominee for the head of the Criminal Division.
Today we’re also considering Mr. Brian Benczkowski. I want to welcome him back to the committee. He previously served as staff director for Senator Sessions when he was ranking member. So, many of us do remember him.
Mr. Benczkowski has been nominated by President Trump to head the Criminal Division at Justice. The Criminal Division, as I think most people know, is responsible for enforcement of all federal criminal law in our country. It’s an important position for the rule of law in this country.
We must assess today whether Mr. Benczkowski is qualified to lead this division. And that includes the propriety of his representation this year of Alfa Bank. This is the Russian bank that the media reported had been federally investigated for potential connections between its servers and the Trump Organization.
I don’t know what investigations there were, if any, so we have requested a briefing. And I want to thank the chairman for helping to facilitate that briefing with the Justice Department.
I very much appreciate that Mr. Benczkowski has agreed to speak publicly about his work for Alfa Bank and I think it’s an important topic to understand given the position he’s been nominated for.
As I understand it, Mr. Benczkowski participated in President Trump’s transition team from September of last year to January of this year. He led the transition team’s work at the Justice Department, which is now led by his former boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Mr. Benczkowski told the committee that the retention of former FBI Director James Comey was discussed by those on the transition team, including himself.
In March, within two months of leaving the transition team, Mr. Benczkowski agreed to represent Alfa Bank.
Specifically, his work for Alfa Bank went to the heart of the reported investigations. He worked with a computer forensics firm to determine any ties between servers of Alfa Bank and the Trump Organization, and also whether and how private server information had gotten out of the ban.
Additionally, he reviewed the “Steele dossier,” a private investigator’s file on alleged links between Russia and the Trump campaign. He did this for Alfa Bank to consider suing Buzz Feed for defamation over their online publication of the dossier. Alfa Bank, in fact, did sue Buzz Feed on May 26 of this year.
In April, while Mr. Benczkowski was working for Alfa Bank, Attorney General Sessions’s chief of staff asked him about his interest in leading the Criminal Division.
Mr. Benczkowski’s law firm then notified Alfa Bank of his potential nomination for the Trump administration. But the fact that Mr. Benczkowski continued representing Alfa Bank, until the day of his nomination, which was June 6, raises questions. After he found out about his potential nomination, why did he continue his representation of Alfa Bank?
It is clear to me that Mr. Benczkowski is knowledgeable about issues related to an ongoing investigation. So I asked before this hearing if he would commit himself to recusing—not only from cases involving Alfa Bank as his former client, but also matters within Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation.
He would not commit to recusing himself. I’m concerned with his refusal, especially given the position for which he has been nominated. So I look forward to hearing from the witness on this point. Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.”
In addition to her delivered remarks on Tuesday, Senator Feinstein also submitted remarks for the record on Stephen Schwartz, nominee to the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, and the blue-slip process.
Remarks on Stephen Schwartz:
“In 2014, President Obama nominated five people to the Court of Federal Claims. All of them had between 20 and 37 years of legal experience each. All of them had experience litigating before the Court of Federal Claims. All of them were voted out of Committee by voice vote—as in, they had wide bipartisan support because they were nonpartisan, highly qualified nominees. And all of them were blocked from final confirmation for the next two years by Senator Tom Cotton, who claimed that the Court of Federal Claims’ workload meant that it did not need any new judges.
Today, we are considering the nomination of Stephen Schwartz to this same court. Mr. Schwartz has only nine years of legal experience. Based on the materials Mr. Schwartz submitted to the Committee, it appears that Mr. Schwartz has never litigated before the Court of Federal Claims.
Indeed, he has not been admitted to practice before the Court he has been nominated to join. He has only been chief counsel in two cases that have reached final appellate or trial court decisions. Mr. Chairman, I have serious concerns about whether this nominee is qualified at this point in his career to serve on the court to which he has been nominated.”
Remarks on the blue slip process:
“The purpose of the blue slip is to encourage meaningful consultation between the White House and home state senators on nominees.
Already this year, Judge Amul Thapar was confirmed as a judge on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals from Kentucky, and Kevin Newsom is awaiting confirmation to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals from Alabama. Both of these nominations were only possible because Chairman Grassley consistently honored the blue slip rule for circuit court nominees under President Obama.
President Obama had nominated other people to fill those Kentucky and Alabama vacancies, but the home state senators did not return blue slips for nine and ten months, respectively, and those nominations expired.
That is the prerogative of home state senators when it comes to blue slips, and it is a prerogative that Senator Grassley and Senator Leahy both honored as chairmen. Senators deserve all the time they need to review a nominee’s record and make a decision about the blue slip.”