Hui Chen served as compliance counsel at DOJ since 2015
Chen tweeted a picture of herself protesting outside the White House in May
Lawyers at the Justice Department are typically mum on frank details surrounding an early resignation, so it’s especially unusual when one directly points to the conduct of the President of the United States as the reason for quitting.
But Hui Chen, an anti-corruption expert who formerly served in the department’s fraud section of the criminal division, is publicly speaking out on the struggle of working for the top law enforcement arm of the federal government when the President dominates the headlines with what she describes as potential conflicts of interest and abuses of power she would have found unacceptable from a CEO under federal investigation.
“I could have left on November 9 or January 21, but I didn’t,” Chen explained in an interview with CNN. “I liked the importance of the work and loved the people I worked with (at the Justice Department). The decision wasn’t easy.”
In May, Chen told the department she planned to resign, but made waves when she described the circumstances of her recent departure – including the “cognitive dissonance” of “trying to hold companies to standards that our current administration is not living up to” – in a particularly candid post on LinkedIn last week.
“To sit across the table from companies and question how committed they were to ethics and compliance felt not only hypocritical, but very much like shuffling the deck chair(s) on the Titanic,” Chen wrote. “Even as I engaged in those questioning and evaluations, on my mind were the numerous lawsuits pending against the President of the United States for everything from violations of the Constitution to conflict of interest … and the investigators and prosecutors fired for their pursuits of principles and facts.”
And while there is no evidence to indicate the President is under criminal investigation, Chen said, “I wanted no more part in it.”
A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment for this story. CNN has reached out to the White House for comment and has not yet received a response.
A former federal prosecutor in the 1990s with an expertise in anti-bribery laws, Chen served as the department’s then newly created “compliance counsel” in the fraud section on a contractor basis since November 2015, helping federal prosecutors evaluate corporations’ anti-corruption programs, according to a Justice Department news release at the time.
Chen previously worked as assistant general counsel for Pfizer and as a senior corporate attorney at Microsoft.
At the Justice Department, Chen reported to fraud chief Andrew Weissmann, who recently left the department to work for Special Counsel Robert Mueller in the investigation into Russian meddling into the US election.
She explained to CNN that she had received an offer to renew her contract with the Justice Department – which was set to expire in September – but began contemplating her resignation back in February or March.
But Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey in May was the tipping point for her.
“That really was stunning to me,” Chen said. “I kept trying to picture a company telling us that we have a situation involving the CEO, where the lead investigator was told to ‘let it go,’ and then fired. That would not be a good story to tell the fraud section – that would not reflect well on your company’s compliance program.”
And while at first glance Chen’s Twitter account might suggest she opposed some Trump policies even before she resigned, Chen insists that she hasn’t been politically active since her student days at University of California-Berkeley, when she was a youth leader for the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush campaign in the 1980s.
She posted a picture of herself in May protesting outside the White House, holding a sign saying, “Support and Defend the Constitution of the United States,” but explains that comes directly from the oath of office civil servants are expected to follow, and she was “very, very careful” to avoid any politically inappropriate posts that could violate the Hatch Act as a department contractor.
While Chen praises the prosecutors she worked with at DOJ, she said in her LinkedIn post that she felt frustrated that the management of the department prohibited her from doing public speaking.
When asked if she received any pushback about any of her “resistance” tweets from DOJ supervisors, she said: “never, not one word.”
As for what’s next, Chen says she plans to speak, write and work toward “protecting democracy,” while also engaging with the compliance community she’s been steeped in for decades.
“I had hoped I would have a nice summer off,” Chen said, “but so far it hasn’t been the quiet July 4th I was hoping for.”