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Head Of DOJ's Election Crimes Unit Steps Down After Barr OKs Election Inquiries

U.S. Attorney General William Barr meets with members of the St. Louis police last month. Barr, one of President Trump's most steadfast allies, has authorized federal prosecutors to pursue allegations of voting irregularities.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr meets with members of the St. Louis police last month. Barr, one of President Trump's most steadfast allies, has authorized federal prosecutors to pursue allegations of voting irregularities.

Richard Pilger resigned as head of the Justice Department's election crimes branch Monday night, protesting Attorney General William Barr's memo authorizing federal prosecutors to pursue allegations of voting irregularities.

Barr's policy is seen as a step toward validating President Trump's baseless attacks on the integrity of an election in which he has been declared the loser.

Pilger said Barr's memorandum breaks with the Justice Department's policy on avoiding interference with elections that has stood for 40 years. The policy had set a high bar for launching a public investigation into any election that has not yet been certified. Important deadlines to certify the U.S. presidential election arrive in December.

Pilger announced his resignation from his leadership role in a letter to colleagues and staff. The letter was shared online by Vanita Gupta, the former head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.

The letter reads, in part:

"Having familiarized myself with the new policy and its ramifications, and in accord with the best tradition of the John C. Keeney Award for Exceptional Integrity and Professionalism (my most cherished Departmental recognition), I must regretfully resign from my role as Director of the Election Crimes Branch. I have enjoyed very much working with you for over a decade to aggressively and diligently enforce federal criminal election law, policy and practice without partisan fear or favor. I thank you for your support in that effort."

The department's longstanding policy urges extreme caution in starting a public investigation before an election has been officially concluded in part because doing so could chill legitimate voting and campaign activities. It also "runs the significant risk of interjecting the investigation itself as an issue, both in the campaign and in the adjudication of any ensuing election contest," according to the government's guidelines for prosecuting election offenses.

That document adds:

"Accordingly, overt criminal investigative measures should not ordinarily be taken in matters involving alleged fraud in the manner in which votes were cast or counted until the election in question has been concluded, its results certified, and all recounts and election contests concluded."

The most recent edition of the Justice Department guide, issued in 2017, runs nearly 300 pages. Pilger was its editor.

Because of the sensitive nature of the election process, the policy has long required a U.S. attorney's office to consult the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section before moving beyond a preliminary investigation.

On Monday, Barr, one of Trump's most steadfast allies, authorized federal prosecutors to pursue "substantial allegations of voting and vote tabulation irregularities" in U.S. states. He criticized the existing guidance, calling it "a passive and delayed enforcement approach."

Barr qualified his stance by requiring any inquiries or reviews to be based on "clear and apparently-credible allegations of irregularities" that could — if proven true — affect the outcome of a federal election in an individual state. The attorney general also said his memo should not be taken to suggest the Justice Department has "concluded that voting irregularities have impacted the outcome of any election."

Despite those caveats, Barr's policy is regarded as contributing to Trump's "disinformation campaign about voting," as NPR reported Monday night. And former Justice Department officials were quick to criticize the memo as overtly partisan.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.