Justice Dept. Nominee Who Drew Scrutiny for Russian Bank Work Is Confirmed – New York Times

Justice Dept. Nominee Who Drew Scrutiny for Russian Bank Work Is Confirmed

Brian A. Benczkowski, left, the new head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, with Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, who voted against him.CreditHarry Hamburg/Associated Press
  • July 11, 2018

WASHINGTON — The Senate narrowly confirmed a former Justice Department official on Wednesday to lead the department’s Criminal Division and oversee the government’s career prosecutors, including those investigating President Trump.

Democrats fought the nomination of the former staff member, Brian A. Benczkowski, raising questions about his qualifications. Mr. Benczkowski has never tried a case in court and was also scrutinized over private-sector work for one of Russia’s largest banks.

The 51-to-48 vote was along party lines, with only Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, joining Republicans to confirm Mr. Benczkowski.

His confirmation broke a logjam of pending nominations for top jobs at the Justice Department, where officials and employees complained privately and publicly that the Senate took an unusually long time to greenlight Mr. Benczkowski, who was nominated 13 months ago.

“Brian is an outstanding lawyer with a diverse public service and criminal law background spanning over 20 years,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement. “At a time like this — with surging violent crime and an unprecedented drug epidemic — this position is especially important.”

Mr. Benczkowski, 48, has worked since 2010 as a lawyer focused on white-collar criminal defense cases at the firm Kirkland & Ellis. In that job, he helped Russia’s Alfa Bank investigate whether its computer servers had contacted the Trump Organization, a question that touched directly on suspicions about the bank that emerged in the early months of the Trump-Russia affair.

The F.B.I., which also investigated, found that data moving between the bank and the Trump Organization did not amount to clandestine communications, and some experts suggested that it was related to Trump hotel marketing materials.

But Democratic senators said Mr. Benczkowski’s decision to take on the Alfa Bank work last year amid heightened scrutiny over relations between Trump associates and Russia showed a lack of good judgment. Alfa Bank’s owners have ties to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, and Mr. Benczkowski worked closely with the Trump transition team and was once a Senate Judiciary Committee staff member when Mr. Sessions was on the committee.

“The main criticism is that Brian will be the person in the Justice Department who oversees sensitive cases, criminal trials and people who make calls on things like search warrants,” said Joyce Vance, a former United States attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. “The flip side of that and the good news is that he’ll be surrounded by career prosecutors who will know how to do all of these things, and whose advice he will have access to.”

He will also help oversee the special counsel investigation into Russian election interference and possible ties to the Trump campaign as well the inquiry into Michael D. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, which is being conducted by federal prosecutors in Manhattan.

Mr. Benczkowski has told lawmakers that he supported Mr. Mueller’s investigation but would not promise to recuse himself from issues involving Russia. Mr. Sessions has stepped back from election-related matters, including the Russia investigation, which is overseen by Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general.

Senate Democrats sought to block Mr. Benczkowski’s confirmation, citing a lack of relevant experience. Though he has served in several Justice Department roles — work in legislative affairs and legal policy as well as key leadership posts for the offices of the attorney general, the deputy attorney general and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — Mr. Benczkowski was not a federal prosecutor.

“The only apparent qualification that Mr. Benczkowski has is his close relationship with, and political loyalty to, the attorney general and the president,” Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, said in his floor statement during Mr. Benczkowski’s confirmation hearing on Wednesday.

“This could prove to be a historic mistake,” Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, warned after Mr. Benczkowski’s confirmation. He, Mr. Leahy and other Democrats on the Judiciary Committee wrote in May to their colleagues urging them to deny Mr. Benczkowski’s appointment.

But 14 former United States attorneys who supported Mr. Benczkowski’s nomination told the Senate that he was a “person of integrity and fairness, and someone whose experience and leadership skills will serve him and the department well.”

Mr. Benczkowski is a “serious attorney” who understands the Justice Department’s importance, said Megan L. Brown, a lawyer at the firm Wiley Rein who worked with him at the Justice Department. “He has a great sense of duty to country and the safety and security of the country, and also understands the seriousness of the threats we face, domestically and abroad,” she said.

Even with Mr. Benczkowski’s confirmation, the Justice Department is still waiting for the Senate to greenlight leaders for some of its most high-profile divisions, including civil, environmental and civil rights.

Department officials have grown frustrated by the slow pace of confirmations. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, has focused on confirming conservative judges as part of the Republican Party’s efforts to reshape the judicial branch while allowing some executive-branch nominations to languish.

A yearlong confirmation process, Mr. Rosenstein said in May, “is a long runway for a job that lasts for only a few years.”

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A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A15 of the New York edition with the headline: Senate Breaks Logjam to Confirm Former Sessions Aide for Justice Department Job. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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