The Justice Department bribery-for-a-presidential-pardon investigation, which became public this week, involves the past efforts of well-connected Washington lawyer Abbe Lowell and Republican lobbyist and fundraiser Elliott Broidy in the early days of the Trump White House, sources tell CNN.
The effort in 2017 – which appears to have begun before Lowell became a lawyer to Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump and Broidy took part in lobbying the Trump administration for foreign interests – was on behalf of Hugh Leslie Baras, a septuagenarian psychologist convicted in 2014 of failing to report income from his private practice to the IRS. Baras unsuccessfully tried to overturn his sentence for years.
No known charges have been brought as a result of the investigation, and it is not clear if the probe is active. People “have not been charged by the grand jury,” the Justice Department told a federal judge recently. A department official told CNN earlier this week that “no government official was or is currently a subject or target of the investigation disclosed in this filing.” Baras has not received a pardon or a reduced sentence.
Judge Beryl Howell of the DC District Court released court documents on Tuesday related to the investigation with heavy redactions, though her opinion mentioned emails provided by the Justice Department that appeared to promise an “anticipated future substantial political contribution” in exchange for clemency, with political connections to the Trump White House key to the strategy.
The New York Times first reported the investigation centered around Broidy, Lowell and Baras.
Broidy pleaded guilty this fall to a foreign lobbying conspiracy, in which he took part in an effort to convince the Trump administration to stop a fraud investigation of a Malaysian investment fund and advocated for the removal of a Chinese billionaire in the US. He also agreed to cooperate, according to his plea deal.
Lowell is known in Washington as a star trial lawyer, and represents an associate of Broidy’s who also pleaded guilty to a foreign lobbying charge in August. Lowell has served as white collar defense lawyer to President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Kushner, both presidential advisers, a role he took on in June 2017, apparently at the tail end of, or after his efforts for Baras.
None of the people who acknowledge they were involved in seeking a pardon for Baras, and that the judge’s opinion pertained to their efforts, have heard anything from investigators. Representatives of Broidy, Lowell and Baras say they believe they aren’t under investigation.
“Mr. Broidy is not under investigation,” said William Burck, an attorney for Broidy. “Mr. Broidy is not accused of any wrongdoing.”
Burck said that Broidy, a Beverly Hills-based GOP fundraiser who raised money for Trump’s inauguration, acted as a connector in the situation, helping Sanford Diller, a billionaire California real estate developer and Trump donor, connect to Lowell as a way to help Baras in prison. Diller died in 2018. He had given more than $300,000 to the Republican Party in 2016, according to federal records.
The court record about the investigation shows that a “substantial” political donor expected to help secure clemency for an imprisoned defendant because of his contributions, and had enlisted the help of an “attorney-advocate” and of a person “coordinating” to get a clemency petition to the White House.
Marc Zilversmit, a San Francisco-based attorney who represented Baras in his trial and appeal, said the Justice Department hasn’t contacted him or Baras about the investigation. Baras was released from prison in August 2019, after serving a two-and-a-half-year sentence.
“They haven’t shown any interest in talking to him, and they’ve never suggested he did anything wrong,” Zilversmit said.
Reid Weingarten, a lawyer for Lowell, told CNN that he spoke to the Justice Department this week after the opinion was unsealed, and was left with the impression that “no one had the slightest problem with [Lowell’s] conduct.” Lowell had acted simply as a lawyer for Baras, Weingarten said, adding that no bribe was paid, he said. Lowell had represented Baras in his effort to secure a pardon – which normally includes submitting an application to the administration.
“They have sympathy for him. He’s never been, is not or will be under scrutiny in this matter by them,” Weingarten said. “But everything’s under seal.”
Documents reviewed by CNN about Baras also indicated Lowell was the point person to reach out to the incoming Trump administration, and was brought into the effort by Diller and Broidy. The documents indicate that Lowell reached out to the White House counsel’s office and connected Diller to people there.
The revelation of the investigation and mystery of the players this week coincided with pardon chatter in Washington, after multiple new reports indicated that Trump may offer a windfall of pardons to his political contacts, including his interest in the idea of pre-emptive pardons for people like his children who haven’t faced any criminal charges at this time, or for himself.
CNN’s Evan Perez and Pamela Brown contributed to this report.