The American Civil Liberties Union has filed an ethics complaint against Attorney General Jeff Sessions over his testimony to a Senate committee that he had no communications with the Russian government.
The complaint, filed with the Alabama State Bar’s disciplinary commission, comes less than two weeks after The Washington Post revealed that Sessions met with Russia’s ambassador to the United States twice last year and did not disclose those communications when asked during his confirmation hearing in January. The March 1 report by The Post’s Adam Entous, Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller intensified calls for a congressional investigation into Russia’s alleged involvement in the presidential election.
Chris Anders, deputy director of the ACLU’s legislative office in Washington, claims that Sessions had violated Alabama’s rules of professional conduct preventing lawyers from engaging in “conduct involving dishonest, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation,'” according to the complaint, which cites The Post’s story.
Sessions has been a member of the Alabama State Bar since 1973.
The complaint, filed Thursday, says the report of the meetings with the Russian ambassador “does not square” with Sessions’s sworn testimony in the Senate.
During the Jan. 10 Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) asked Sessions what he’ll do if “anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign” had communications with the Russian government.
“I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians,” Sessions said.
Sessions submitted written statements a week later in response to questions by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.). Leahy asked: “Several of the president-elect’s nominees or senior advisers have Russian ties. Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after Election Day?”
Sessions’s response: “No.”
Following The Post’s article, Sessions acknowledged briefly speaking with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July and again at his Senate office in September. But he said there were no discussions about the Trump campaign. He’s also recused himself from Justice Department investigations related to the presidential election, saying he was following the advice of the agency’s ethics officials.
A spokesman for the Justice Department declined to comment and, instead, referred to a letter Sessions wrote Monday to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sessions wrote that he “correctly” and “honestly” answered Franken’s question about a “continuing exchange of information” between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries of the Russian government.
“I did not mention communications I had had with the Russian ambassador over the years because the question did not ask about them,” Sessions wrote.
Anders said Sessions’s communications with the Russian ambassador during the presidential campaign raises two concerns.
“One is that it’s highly corrosive of a democracy to have a future AG make false statements to the Senate related to a matter that’s under investigation,” he said. “And then, as part of that, the underlying matter of whether a foreign government illegally influenced the U.S. election goes to the very heart of our democracy and the sanctity of the election process. You can’t have a functioning legitimate democracy if foreign governments are influencing the outcome.”
Alabama’s five-member disciplinary commission will determine whether the complaint has merit. If it does, the complaint will be sent to Sessions, who will then provide a written response. An investigation by grievance committees and the state bar’s Office of General Counsel will then start, at which point evidence and witness testimony will be presented during a closed hearing.
The committees and the Office of General Counsel will make recommendations to the disciplinary commission, which will determine whether to move forward with disciplinary sanctions. According to the state bar’s website, punishments range from private reprimand to disbarment, which can either be temporary or permanent. If the commission decides to impose a penalty, that information will be made public.
The possibility of an investigation, let alone a punishment, is far too early to assess. Anders said the whole process could take between six to 18 months, and the bulk of ethics violations for most state bars around the country involve misusing clients’ money, which is not an accusation against Sessions.
But if the worst-case scenario of disbarment does happen, it will likely be difficult for Sessions to fulfill the responsibilities of the attorney general. That includes advising the president on legal matters and representing the country in foreign and domestic courts — duties performed by a lawyer.
Last month, a group of law professors from around the country filed a similar complaint against White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, The Post’s Sari Horwitz reported.
The lawyers accused Conway of ethical violations citing false statements that President Barack Obama had banned Iraqi refugees from coming to the United States for six months after the “Bowling Green massacre” (which never happened) and Conway’s endorsement of Ivanka Trump’s products during a Fox News interview.