“It truly has been the honor of my professional career to serve at the department once again, and to lead the men and women of the Criminal Division,” Benczkowski wrote in the statement announcing his departure. “Their work ethic and steadfast commitment to the cause of justice, the rule of law, and vindicating the rights of victims, have inspired me every day.”
Benczkowski’s leaving comes at a busy time for the criminal division, which has been helping investigate a raft of fraud stemming from the coronavirus crisis. The division’s public-integrity section also is leading the high-profile investigation into whether former Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) broke the law in stock trades he made as the United States was bracing for the pandemic.
Benczkowski’s departure takes effect July 3. It is unclear what he will do next.
“The decision to leave is my own and has been in the works for some time,” Benczkowski wrote. “It is part of a long-planned transition that began late last year, when the Attorney General asked each Assistant Attorney General to begin preparing for the coming year. At that time, I told Attorney General Barr that I intended to remain in my position until the summer of this year, and he graciously agreed to that timetable.”
In a statement, Barr said Benczkowski had “served the Department with distinction.”
“This was his sixth senior leadership role at Justice, and the entire Department benefited from his managerial expertise, institutional knowledge, and sound judgment,” Barr said.
Benczkowski was confirmed as head of the criminal division in July 2018 after a lengthy partisan fight, as Democrats contended his representation of a Russian bank while in private practice and lack of prosecutorial experience made him unfit for the job. He was well respected in conservative legal circles, however, having served in the Justice Department before and having led the entire Justice Department transition as Trump prepared to take office. He was a top aide to Jeff Sessions, Trump’s first attorney general, when Sessions (R) represented Alabama in the Senate.
Justice Department criminal-division lawyers, along with U.S. attorneys, oversee all criminal matters, approve when to apply to the courts for the use of electronic surveillance and advise the attorney general on criminal enforcement policy.
During Benczkowski’s tenure, the division was notably involved in winning a conviction at trial of the notorious Mexican drug lord known as “El Chapo,” in bringing indictments against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and members of his inner circle on narcoterrorism charges, and in cracking down on doctors who mis-prescribed opioids.
The division also helped bring the case against four members of the Chinese military for a 2017 hack of the credit reporting agency Equifax, and it helped Malaysia recover more than $620 million in assets stolen from a sovereign wealth fund there in a scandal that has come to be known by the shorthand “1MDB.”
But Benczkowski’s most scrutinized move was probably his decision not to open a campaign finance investigation into Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky about investigating former vice president Joe Biden. The communications would ultimately lead House Democrats to impeach Trump, though he was acquitted in the Senate.
Some legal analysts said Trump could have been examined for possibly violating the ban on seeking a contribution from a foreigner — which would violate campaign finance laws — or for a broader corrupt bargain in which Zelensky would get a White House meeting or other help in exchange for digging up dirt on Trump’s political foe.
Justice Department officials, though, looked only at whether Trump might have violated campaign finance laws, not federal corruption statutes, and because they ultimately rejected opening a case, they relied almost exclusively on scrutinizing a transcript of the call.
Senior Justice Department officials have defended their handling of the matter. They have said that campaign finance laws required them to “quantify” the value of what Trump was seeking for his campaign, and that was impossible to do with the investigations Trump had requested. Kerri Kupec, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said in a statement at the time that Benczkowski determined “there was no campaign finance violation and that no further action was warranted.”
“All relevant components of the Department agreed with his legal conclusion,” she said.