In Bribe-For-Pardon Plot, DOJ Leaves Trail of Legal Bread Crumbs

What is behind the black marks?

That’s the question swirling around Washington on Wednesday after U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell unsealed a redacted 20-page document that details a possible plot to offer bribes in exchange for a presidential pardon.

The document, released Tuesday, revealed that the U.S. Justice Department was investigating the scheme as recently as August, probing whether unidentified people secretly lobbied or paid bribes to obtain clemency for someone convicted of a crime. Names were obscured, pages of background information were entirely blacked-out, and much about the investigation remains unknown, including whether it has continued since August.

But the document left a trail of bread crumbs that were immediately seized upon by Twitter sleuths and close observers of the Trump presidency. “The $10,000 question is — who is it?” said former federal prosecutor Jennifer Rodgers. “Is it someone who would be in a position to implicate the president in anything?”

Here are the clues to the person’s identity in the unsealed document:

  • There were at least three individuals involved in the possible scheme, one of whom is a lawyer. Two of those people may have used political connections to try to obtain a pardon.
  • The government seized more than 50 “digital media devices” associated with the suspects, the document says, including iPhones, iPads, laptops, thumb drives, and computer and external hard drives. The information totaled “several terabytes of data” and came from search warrants executed on at least two offices.
  • The person seeking the pardon surrendered to the custody of the Bureau of Prisons. This suggests that the pardon-seeker has already been convicted of a crime.
  • The pardon-seeker’s name appears to end with the letter “s.” In several (but not all) places in the document, a possessive apostrophe is appended to a redacted name that seems to refer to the pardon-seeker, without an “s” following it.
  • Someone involved in the possible scheme has made “substantial political contributions” in the past, according to a footnote in the document. It’s not clear whether that person was the pardon-seeker or someone else targeted in the investigation.
  • Someone involved in the possible scheme was in touch with officials at the White House Counsel’s office to ensure that the pardon-seeker’s clemency petition “reached the targeted officials,” according to the document.
  • The matter came to light after a judge was asked to resolve a legal dispute over whether material seized by investigators was subject to attorney-client privilege. Howell ruled that some of the material was not protected because it was shared with someone who was not a lawyer, and so investigators could “review and use any such communications to confront subjects and targets of this investigation.”
  • None of the people targeted in the investigation is a government employee, according to a Justice Department official.

Read More: Why Presidential Pardons Are Normal, Trump’s Less So

— With assistance by David Voreacos

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