Legal

Justice watchdog staffer resigned amid leak probe over Trump family separation report

DOJ Inspector General ordered investigation into who disclosed report about border policy.

An employee of the Justice Department Inspector General’s office “abruptly resigned” after coming under scrutiny in an investigation of the disclosure to the media of a closely-held draft report on the Trump administration’s family separation policy, according to a statement issued Wednesday by the watchdog office and accounts from two people familiar with the matter.

An investigative summary posted online by DOJ’s Inspector General did not name the employee who quit nor specify what report triggered the leak probe, but two people familiar with the episode told POLITICO the leak inquiry focused on disclosures about a review of the origins Trump administration’s family separation policy.

Reports by NBC News and the New York Times in October 2020, about a month before the presidential election, said former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other top Justice Department officials were “a driving force” behind a series of moves in 2018 that led to thousands of children being separated from their parents or other relatives after crossing the border from Mexico into the U.S. The reports cited a draft report by Inspector General Michael Horowitz that followed a two-year review of the so-called “zero tolerance” policy.

The policy, eventually abandoned by the Trump administration, resulted in adults accused of crossing the border illegally being prosecuted criminally even if accompanied by young children. During the chaos prompted by the policy, U.S. officials essentially lost track of the ties between some immigrant children and their parents, leading to extreme difficulty in reuniting them. Litigation and claims for financial damages over the policy remain pending.

The disclosures in the media in the fall of 2020 prompted concern inside the department, where officials believed the leaks were intended to influence the outcome of the election, two people familiar with the matter said. The final report was formally released by Horowitz’s office in January 2021.

According to the summary posted Wednesday, Horowitz’s office referred the potential leak to a council which oversees inspectors general across the government, which in turn assigned the investigation to an inspector general’s office outside the Justice Department.

That probe eventually centered on an unnamed employee in Horowitz’s office, which has approximately 500 investigators and other staff.

“The independent investigation reviewed the DOJ OIG employee’s phone records and found that they reflected numerous and lengthy phone conversations between the then DOJ OIG employee and reporters at the media outlets during the time period in which articles were published about the then ongoing DOJ OIG review, as well as electronic evidence that demonstrated that the then DOJ OIG employee was privy to documents referenced in the various articles,” the two-page statement said.

The summary described a broad-ranging investigation into the leak, which included asking staffers involved in the work to answer written questions about whether they’d had any interactions with the media. This request seemed to have prompted one employee to quit, the statement suggested.

“The independent investigation noted that the then DOJ OIG employee abruptly resigned from DOJ OIG shortly before the date by which the employee and other DOJ OIG employees connected to the then ongoing DOJ OIG review were asked to submit sworn answers to a questionnaire regarding the unauthorized disclosures to the media,” the summary said. “The independent investigation further noted that the then DOJ OIG employee was the only DOJ OIG employee who did not answer the questions about the unauthorized disclosures.”

While the probe found that the unnamed employee violated “federal ethics regulations and DOJ OIG policy,” the summary makes no reference to the leak being unlawful or to the matter being referred for potential prosecution. A written denial from the alleged leaker could have exposed him or her to a criminal false statement charge.

Horowitz’s office said the staffer who resigned later declined to talk with investigators. The DOJ IG and the other agency IG which conducted the leak probe lack the power to compel former employees to testify in investigations, the summary noted.

In a related development, Horowitz’s office said later Wednesday that it made “non-material revisions” to its final report on the family separation policy following a review by the Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general.

“The changes were made to the passages of the report to more closely align with the supporting evidence in our underlying work papers,” Horowitz’s office said.

Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.