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Senior White House Officials Were Lobbied in ‘Bribery-for-Pardon Scheme,’ Unsealed Order Reveals


Unregistered lobbyists allegedly tried to coax senior White House officials while pushing a “Bribery-for-pardon” scheme involving a “substantial political contribution in exchange for a presidential pardon or reprieve of sentence,” a federal judge revealed in a heavily redacted order released on Tuesday.

The bombshell investigation became public during a fight over attorney-client privilege that secretly has been underway in federal court in Washington, D.C. since at least Aug. 25 this year, when prosecutors sought permission a judge’s permission to override attorney-client privileged communications because of the crime-fraud exception.

“In the course of the ongoing review by the government’s filter team of the ‘over fifty digital media devices, including iPhones, iPads, laptops, thumb drives, and computer and external hard drives, totaling several terabytes of data)’ seized […] email communications have been identified ‘indicat[ing] additional criminal activity,'” Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell, who leads the federal jurisdiction inside the nation’s capital, summarized in a 15-page opinion and order detailing a “secret lobbying scheme” where undisclosed individuals allegedly acted as undisclosed lobbyists to senior White House officials.

Howell granted the government’s request the next day, on Aug. 26, unsealing the written version of that opinion on Tuesday.

Broad swaths of Howell’s order remain blacked out under redactions, but what has been unsealed exposed a wide probe into two separate but “related” conspiracies: a “secret lobbying” and a “Bribery-for-pardon” scheme.

“For the foregoing reasons, email communications between and among [REDACTED] and [REDACTED], or any agents of these individuals, that were sent, copied or forwarded to [REDACTED] in connection with the alleged [Lobbying Disclosure Act] scheme or Bribery-for-pardon scheme described in the government’s motion are not covered by the attorney-client or other privilege,” the order states. “The investigative team may therefore review and use any such communications to confront subjects and targets of this investigation.”

Offering a tantalizing glimpse of the evidence that the government gleaned, a footnote of the order suggests a tacit expectation that clemency would keep political donations flowing: “The emails submitted as exhibits by the government do not show any direct payment to [REDACTED] by [REDACTED] or [REDACTED] and instead indicate that [REDACTED] expected [REDACTED] to assist in obtaining clemency for [REDACTED] due to [REDACTED]’s past substantial campaign contributions [REDACTED] and [REDACTED]’s anticipated future substantial political contributions.”

“In the government’s view, ‘even if [REDACTED] did not receive direct financial compensation like [REDACTED], [REDACTED] was nonetheless slated to receive some form of consideration (i.e. ‘other compensation’) for his lobbying activities on behalf of [REDACTED] and [REDACTED],'” it continues.

Nearly half of the order remains entirely blacked out, and the remainder disguises key information about the suspects’ identities.

The release of the order follows the expiration of the window Judge Howell gave prosecutors to keep it under wraps.

“While cognizant of the sensitive and ongoing nature of this investigation, requiring that this motion be considered under seal and ex parte, the government is directed, within 90 days, to submit a report advising whether any portions of this Memorandum Opinion may be unsealed to the public in whole or in part and, if so, proposing any redactions,” Howell wrote.

On Nov. 25, Attorney General Bill Barr’s Department of Justice urged the judge to keep the entire document sealed, but Judge Howell told prosecutors that greater transparency would be mandatory.

“Finding this response insufficient, the Court directed the government to explain why each line, ‘even with redaction of names and persons who have not been publicly charged, must remain under seal,'” she wrote on Tuesday, explaining that the government responding by filing the unsealed order.

Although the order is public, the docket from which it came, Sealed v. Sealed, remains non-public.

Read the order below:

(Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

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Law&Crime's managing editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on NewsNation, NBC, MSNBC, CBS's "Inside Edition," BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks. His reporting on the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell was featured on the Starz and Channel 4 documentary "Who Is Ghislaine Maxwell?" He is the host of Law&Crime podcast "Objections: with Adam Klasfeld."