The move by U.S. Attorney Bobby Christine in the waning days of the Trump administration follows unusual events this week in the federal prosecutor offices in Atlanta and Savannah that have fueled suspicions among legal observers of political interference in law enforcement work.
On Monday, Byung J. “BJay” Pak, whom Trump had appointed as the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia in 2017, unexpectedly told colleagues he was stepping down. On Tuesday, officials announced that Christine would take over for Pak, bypassing Pak’s top deputy, who otherwise might have moved into the job by default.
Then, Christine tapped two assistant U.S. attorneys in the Southern District of Georgia — Joshua S. Bearden and Jason Blanchard — for some type of work in the Northern District, people familiar with the matter said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s political sensitivity. Their task is unclear, but Christine had recently assigned both to serve as district election officers reviewing complaints of election fraud and voting rights abuses.
Asked about the new assignment, Barry L. Paschal, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Savannah, said that “I don’t discuss any active investigation, including acknowledging whether or not such an investigation exists,” and that he also could not discuss “any staffing issues.” A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Atlanta also declined to comment.
The move, legal observers say, is unusual on multiple levels. Atlanta already has more prosecutors than Savannah, including those with experience in election cases, so it is unclear why Christine would want additional personnel there. It would be atypical for an acting U.S. attorney to initiate an investigation or special assignment so close to the end of a presidential administration.
“Wholesale supervision by somebody in a neighboring district is, as far as I know, unprecedented,” said Paul Fishman, who served as the U.S. attorney in New Jersey in the Obama administration. “Bringing assistants from his own district makes it even more unusual.”
By itself, Pak’s abrupt resignation raised questions in Georgia’s legal community. Pak was seen as something of a rising star in Republican circles, a Korean immigrant and former federal prosecutor who had served as a state lawmaker before becoming U.S. attorney. That day, Pak was supposed to participate in a meeting with former federal prosecutors but suddenly called it off, people familiar with the matter said. In announcing his departure, he gave no reason.
“It has been the greatest honor of my professional career to have been able to serve my fellow citizens as the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia,” Pak said in a news release. “I have done my best to be thoughtful and consistent, and to provide justice for my fellow citizens in a fair, effective and efficient manner. I am grateful to President Trump and the United States Senate for the opportunity to serve, and to former Attorneys General [Jeff] Sessions and [William P.] Barr for their leadership of the Department.”
The move also came just a day after The Washington Post reported on an extraordinary call in which Trump urged Republican Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state, to “find” enough votes to overturn Trump’s election defeat in that state. In the same conversation, Trump cited a “never-Trumper U.S. attorney” in Georgia — a possible reference to Pak — and hinted vaguely and baselessly that Raffensperger’s refusal to act on his unfounded fraud claims constituted a “criminal offense.”
Raffensperger said in an interview he was aware of Bearden but not Blanchard. He said Christine had served on his absentee ballot fraud task force, adding, “I guess he feels like his mission is not done.”
Raffensperger said his office had not been contacted as part of any investigation, though the FBI had in the past helped state investigators explore what turned out to be an unfounded claim of Georgia poll workers illegally stuffing and counting ballots at the State Farm Arena on Election Day.
By default, leadership of the Atlanta office would have passed to Kurt Erskine, a longtime federal prosecutor who had been Pak’s top deputy. But, according to the Justice Department, Christine was appointed instead “by written order of the President.”
Christine had worked as a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office in Augusta and as a judge in the Magistrate Court for Columbia County. He also serves in the National Guard as a one-star general and assistant to the guard’s chief counsel.
Donald Ayer, a former deputy attorney general and U.S. attorney, said that bringing Christine in was atypical but that the impact of whatever he was doing might be limited, given how little time is left in the administration. Christine is likely to be replaced when President-elect Joe Biden takes over — if not on Jan. 20, soon after.
“It’s highly suspicious, but I don’t know what they can do with it,” Ayer said. “I don’t know whether to think it’s likely that there’s actually a plan afoot, or is this just the remnants of Trump’s scuzzy operation?”
Trump’s attorneys, meanwhile, seemed to stand down in their efforts to challenge election results in Georgia, voluntarily dropping five lawsuits pending against Raffensperger. But they may have exposed themselves to court sanctions by falsely claiming in their filings that the request for dismissal was the result of a settlement agreement with Raffensperger — which Raffensperger’s attorneys said was not the case.
“Rather than presenting their evidence and witnesses to a court and to cross-examination under oath, the Trump campaign wisely decided the smartest course was to dismiss their frivolous cases,” Raffensperger said in a statement issued Thursday.
Devlin Barrett and Julie Tate contributed to this report.