WASHINGTON — Law enforcement officials have restructured the division of federal prosecutors that oversaw the case against President Trump’s longtime friend Roger J. Stone Jr., according to people briefed on the matter, the latest upheaval in an office at the center of the recent political turmoil at the Justice Department.
The reorganization of most of the criminal division of the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington was implemented last week, capping a tumultuous 15-week stint by Timothy Shea, a longtime adviser to Attorney General William P. Barr, as the interim U.S. attorney in Washington. Mr. Shea’s tenure abruptly ended this week when Mr. Barr named him the acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The White House said Monday that Mr. Trump intended to nominate Justin E. Herdman, the U.S. attorney in Cleveland, to replace Mr. Shea.
Law enforcement officials had discussed an overhaul of the unit for years, but it was not clear why Mr. Shea implemented it when he seemed on the verge of leaving, according to half a dozen people briefed on the changes who would not be named discussing it for fear of retribution. Some lawyers in the office were said to express concern because he was moving prosecutors out of the public corruption unit, which is part of the criminal division. Some feared that it was in response to the turmoil over Mr. Stone’s case, in which Mr. Barr intervened to ask for lighter sentence than prosecutors had recommended, and that members of the unit were being unfairly scrutinized for potential leaks.
The back-to-back changes in structure and leadership have shaken employees who disliked Mr. Shea’s leadership, but also feared that his departure would not stop the White House from exerting undue influence over one of the largest and most important offices in the traditionally independent Justice Department. The Washington office, which has prosecuted many high-profile cases including the conviction of the main suspect in the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, operates separately from the main Justice Department.
Spokeswomen for the Justice Department and for the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington both declined to comment.
It is not unusual for a new U.S. attorney to reorganize, though they usually lose good will even when they make necessary changes, said Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. attorney in Detroit.
“Shea may have decided or been directed to make changes within the office so that his successor could have a honeymoon period,” Ms. McQuade said. “If morale is terrible as a result of the Stone case and the Flynn case, then nothing Shea does will be well-regarded.”
Mr. Shea’s overhaul was one of the biggest that the office has seen in years, according to the people briefed on the changes.
Mr. Shea finalized a plan this spring to overhaul every part of the criminal division except for the national security section, which was responsible for the prosecution of Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn, which Mr. Barr sought to withdraw after a sustained campaign by Mr. Trump and his supporters. Mr. Barr’s action was highly unusual and it prompted the federal judge overseeing the case to ask a former judge to oppose it.
Mr. Shea made his most extensive changes at the fraud and public corruption unit, which handled politically sensitive matters like the Stone case. It also oversees the ongoing investigation into stock trades that Senator Richard M. Burr, Republican of North Carolina, made as the pandemic was unfolding in the United States. F.B.I. agents seized Mr. Burr’s cellphone last week in a major escalation of the inquiry.
Mr. Shea split the fraud and public corruption section into two parts. The stand-alone fraud section will now focus on major government fraud, along with economic and coronavirus-related crimes. The public corruption lawyers and the office’s hate crimes prosecutors were combined into a new special prosecutions section that Mr. Shea billed as an elite unit.
But some public corruption lawyers were transferred to other parts of the office and were told not to discuss the moves with reporters, according to two people with knowledge of the restructuring.
The overhaul came as a majority of the office has been working remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic, making it difficult to implement a large reorganization. Additionally, Mr. Shea had had a tenuous hold on the post from the start, making it unusual for him to embark on a significant change.
Mr. Shea’s prospects of becoming U.S. attorney permanently were thrown into jeopardy in his first week on the job, when the president complained about the sentencing recommendation for Mr. Stone made by career prosecutors in the office. Mr. Stone was convicted of seven felonies in an effort to impede a congressional inquiry that threatened Mr. Trump.
Some lawyers expressed worries that the reorganization came so soon after the Stone and Flynn cases roiled the office. After Mr. Barr intervened, prosecutors on both cases refused to sign the briefs submitted in federal court on those matters and quit the cases. One prosecutor on the Stone case, Jonathan Kravis, left the department altogether and, in an Op-Ed article in The Washington Post, wrote that Mr. Barr had sent “an unmistakable message to prosecutors and agents — if the president demands, we will throw you under the bus.”
Mr. Shea told lawyers that the internal schisms and deliberations over those cases had emerged in press reports nearly in real time, making it difficult to openly discuss them inside the office, according to three department employees. Some people in the office agreed, but others told associates that they felt that lawyers who worked on public corruption and other sensitive matters were subsequently unfairly scrutinized for potential leaks.
Even as the restructuring was being finalized, it became clear that Mr. Shea was unlikely to remain after his appointment expired in June. District court judges in Washington could have voted to keep him in the job, but in recent days they requested a call with Mr. Shea to discuss such a vote and intimated that he would not be their pick, according to two people briefed on the conversation.
Mr. Shea had grown increasingly isolated from the prosecutors he was leading after many employees started to work remotely, according to current and former department employees. Some workers told associates that he had damaged the office by doing what they saw as Mr. Barr’s bidding. Other said he had been put in an impossible position of trying to ingratiate himself with lawyers who did not trust the attorney general. Few assumed he would stay.
Nonetheless, Mr. Shea himself was taken aback when his departure appeared in media reports on Monday before the White House announced that Mr. Herdman would replace him, as were others in the office, according to two people familiar with the matter.
While employees in the U.S. attorney’s office were said to appreciate Mr. Herdman’s reputation as a smart and fair prosecutor, they expressed concern that a slow Senate confirmation process could leave the office in limbo until after the presidential election in November.
In the meantime, Michael Sherwin, a former naval intelligence officer and longtime prosecutor from Miami, was tapped by Mr. Barr to lead the office.
Mr. Sherwin had been a national security adviser to the deputy attorney general, Jeffrey A. Rosen, and his work on last year’s mass shooting in Pensacola, Fla., impressed Mr. Barr. After the Stone case erupted into chaos, department leaders including the attorney general asked him to become Mr. Shea’s deputy to help defuse the situation, according to multiple people briefed on the request.
Employees in the embattled Washington office greeted Mr. Sherwin, who had a reputation as a tough prosecutor, with cautious optimism. But soon he joined in the push to drop the Flynn case, making him unpopular among some lawyers in the office, according to people familiar with the matter.
Source: NY times