by Paul Sperry
A former senior FBI lawyer who falsified a surveillance document in the Trump-Russia investigation has been restored as a member in “good standing” by the District of Columbia Bar Association even though he has yet to finish serving out his probation as a convicted felon, according to disciplinary records obtained by RealClearInvestigations.
The move is the latest in a series of exceptions the bar has made for Kevin Clinesmith, who pleaded guilty in August 2020 to doctoring an email used to justify a surveillance warrant targeting former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
Clinesmith was sentenced to 12 months probation last January. But the D.C. Bar did not seek his disbarment, as is customary after lawyers are convicted of serious crimes involving the administration of justice. In this case, it did not even initiate disciplinary proceedings against him until February of this year — five months after he pleaded guilty and four days after RealClearInvestigations first reported he had not been disciplined. After the negative publicity, the bar temporarily suspended Clinesmith pending a review and hearing. Then in September, the court that oversees the bar and imposes sanctions agreed with its recommendation to let Clinesmith off suspension with time served; the bar, in turn, restored his status to “active member” in “good standing.”
Before quietly making that decision, however, records indicate the bar did not check with his probation officer to see if he had violated the terms of his sentence or if he had completed the community service requirement of volunteering 400 hours.
To fulfill the terms of his probation, Clinesmith volunteered at Street Sense Media in Washington but stopped working at the nonprofit group last summer, which has not been previously reported. “I can confirm he was a volunteer here,” Street Sense editorial director Eric Falquero told RCI, without elaborating about how many hours he worked. Clinesmith had helped edit and research articles for the weekly newspaper, which coaches the homeless on how to “sleep on the streets” and calls for a “universal living wage” and prison reform.
From the records, it also appears bar officials did not consult with the FBI’s Inspection Division, which has been debriefing Clinesmith to determine if he was involved in any other surveillance abuses tied to Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants, in addition to the one used against Page. Clinesmith’s cooperation was one of the conditions of the plea deal he struck with Special Counsel John Durham. If he fails to fully cooperate, including turning over any relevant materials or records in his possession, he could be subject to perjury or obstruction charges.
Clinesmith — who was assigned to some of the FBI’s most sensitive and high-profile investigations — may still be in Durham’s sights regarding others areas of his wide-ranging probe.
The scope of his mandate as special counsel is broader than commonly understood: In addition to examining the legal justification for the FBI’s “Russiagate” probe, it also includes examining the bureau’s handling of the inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s use of an unsecured email server, which she set up in her basement to send and receive classified information, and her destruction of more than 30,000 subpoenaed emails she generated while running the State Department. As assistant FBI general counsel in the bureau’s national security branch, Clinesmith played an instrumental role in that investigation, which was widely criticized by FBI and Justice Department veterans, along with ethics watchdogs, as fraught with suspicious irregularities.
Clinesmith also worked on former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into the 2016 Trump campaign as the key attorney linking his office to the FBI. He was the only headquarters lawyer assigned to Mueller. Durham’s investigators are said to be looking into the Mueller team’s actions as well.
The D.C. Bar’s treatment of Clinesmith, a registered Democrat who sent anti-Trump rants to FBI colleagues after the Republican was elected, has raised questions from the start. Normally the bar automatically suspends the license of members who plead guilty to a felony. But in Clinesmith’s case, it delayed suspending him on even an interim basis for several months and only acted after RCI revealed the break Clinesmith was given, records confirm.
It then allowed him to negotiate his fate, which is rarely done in any misconduct investigation, let alone one involving a serious crime, according to a review of past cases. It also overlooked violations of its own rules: Clinesmith apparently broke the bar’s rule requiring reporting his guilty plea “promptly” to the court — within 10 days of entering it — and failed to do so for five months, reveal transcripts of a July disciplinary hearing obtained by RCI.
“I did not see evidence that you informed the court,” Rebecca Smith, the chairwoman of the D.C. Bar panel conducting the hearing, admonished Clinesmith.
“[T]hat was frankly just an error,” Clinesmith’s lawyer stepped in to explain.
Smith also scolded the bar’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel for the “delay” in reporting the offense, since it negotiated the deal with Clinesmith, pointing out: “Disciplinary counsel did not report the plea to the court and initiate a disciplinary proceeding.” Bill Ross, the assistant disciplinary counsel who represented the office at the hearing, argued Clinesmith shouldn’t be held responsible and blamed the oversight on the COVID pandemic.
The Democrat-controlled panel, known as the Board on Professional Responsibility, nonetheless gave Clinesmith a pass, rubberstamping the light sentence he negotiated with the bar’s chief prosecutor, Disciplinary Counsel Hamilton “Phil” Fox, while admitting it was “unusual.” Federal Election Commission records show Fox, a former Watergate prosecutor, is a major donor to Democrats, including former President Obama. All three members of the board also are Democratic donors, FEC data reveal.
While the D.C. Bar delayed taking any action against Clinesmith, the Michigan Bar, where he is also licensed, automatically suspended him the day he pleaded guilty. And on Sept. 30, records show, the Michigan Bar’s attorney discipline board suspended Clinesmith for two years, from the date of his guilty plea through Aug. 19, 2022, and fined him $1,037.
“[T]he panel found that respondent engaged in conduct that was prejudicial to the proper administration of justice [and] exposed the legal profession or the courts to obloquy, contempt, censure or reproach,” the board ruled against Clinesmith, adding that his misconduct “was contrary to justice, ethics, honesty or good morals; violated the standards or rules of professional conduct adopted by the Supreme Court; and violated a criminal law of the United States.”
Normally, bars arrange what’s called “reciprocal discipline” for unethical attorneys licensed in their jurisdictions. But this was not done in the case of Clinesmith. The D.C. Bar decided to go much easier on the former FBI attorney, further raising suspicions the anti-Trump felon was given favorable treatment.
In making the bar’s case not to strip Clinesmith of his license or effectively punish him going forward, Fox disregarded key findings by Durham about Clinesmith’s intent to deceive the FISA court as a government attorney who held a position of trust.
Clinesmith confessed to creating a false document by changing the wording in a June 2017 CIA email to state Page was “not a source” for the CIA when in fact the agency had told Clinesmith and the FBI on multiple occasions Page had been providing information about Russia to it for years — a revelation that, if disclosed to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, would have undercut the FBI’s case for electronically monitoring Page as a supposed Russian agent and something that Durham noted Clinesmith understood all too well.
Bar records show Fox simply took Clinesmith’s word that he believed the change in wording was accurate and that in making it, he mistakenly took a “shortcut” to save time and had no intent to deceive the court or the case agents preparing the application for the warrant.
Durham demonstrated that Clinesmith certainly did intend to mislead the FISA court. “By his own words, it appears that the defendant falsified the email in order to conceal [Page’s] former status as a source and to avoid making an embarrassing disclosure to the FISC,” the special prosecutor asserted in his 20-page memo to the sentencing judge, in which he urged a prison term of up to six months for Clinesmith. “Such a disclosure would have drawn a strong and hostile response from the FISC for not disclosing it sooner [in earlier warrant applications].”
As proof of Clinesmith’s intent to deceive, Durham cited an internal message Clinesmith sent the FBI agent preparing the application, who relied on Clinesmith to tell him what the CIA said about Page. “At least we don’t have to have a terrible footnote” explaining that Page was a source for the CIA in the application, Clinesmith wrote.
The FBI lawyer also removed the initial email he sent to the CIA inquiring about Page’s status as a source before forwarding the CIA email to another FBI agent, blinding him to the context of the exchange about Page.
Durham also noted that Clinesmith repeatedly changed his story after the Justice Department’s watchdog first confronted him with the altered email during an internal 2019 investigation. What’s more, he falsely claimed his CIA contact told him in phone calls that Page was not a source, conversations the contact swore never happened.
Fox also maintained that Clinesmith had no personal motive in forging the document. But Durham cited virulently anti-Trump political messages Clinesmith sent to other FBI employees after Trump won in 2016 – including a battle cry to “fight” Trump and his policies – and argued that his clear political bias may have led to his criminal misconduct.
“It is plausible that his strong political views and/or personal dislike of [Trump] made him more willing to engage in the fraudulent and unethical conduct to which he has pled guilty,” Durham told U.S. District Judge Jeb Boasberg.
Boasberg, a Democrat appointed by President Obama, spared Clinesmith jail time and let him serve out his probation from home. Fox and the D.C. Bar sided with Boasberg, who accepted Clinesmith’s claim he did not intentionally deceive the FISA court, which Boasberg happens to preside over, and even offered an excuse for his criminal conduct.
“My view of the evidence is that Mr. Clinesmith likely believed that what he said about Mr. Page was true,” Boasberg said. “By altering the email, he was saving himself some work and taking an inappropriate shortcut.”
Fox echoed the judge’s reasoning in essentially letting Clinesmith off the hook. (The deal they struck, which the U.S. District Court of Appeals that oversees the bar approved in September, called for a one-year suspension, but the suspension began retroactively in August 2020, which made it meaningless.) Boasberg opined that Clinesmith had “already suffered” punishment by losing his FBI job and $150,000 salary.
But, Boasberg assumed, wrongly as it turned out, that Clinesmith also faced possible disbarment. “And who knows where his earnings go now,” the judge sympathized. “He may be disbarred or suspended from the practice of law.”
Anticipating such a punishment, Boasberg waived a recommended fine of up to $10,000, arguing that Clinesmith couldn’t afford it. He also waived the regular drug testing usually required during probation, while returning Clinesmith’s passport. And he gave his blessing to Clinesmith’s request to serve out his probation as a volunteer journalist, before wishing him well: “Mr. Clinesmith, best of luck to you.”
Fox did not respond to requests for comment. But he argued in a petition to the board that his deal with Clinesmith was “not unduly lenient,” because it was comparable to sanctions imposed in similar cases. However, none of the cases he cited involved the FBI, Justice Department or FISA court. One case involved a lawyer who made false statements to obtain construction permits, while another made false statements to help a client become a naturalized citizen – a far cry from falsifying evidence to spy on an American citizen.
Durham noted that in providing the legal support for a warrant application to the secret FISA court, Clinesmith had “a heightened duty of candor,” since FISA targets do not have legal representation before the court.
He argued Clinesmith’s offense was “a very serious crime with significant repercussions” and suggested it made him unfit to practice law.
“An attorney – particularly an attorney in the FBI’s Office of General Counsel – is the last person that FBI agents or this court should expect to create a false document,” Durham said.
The warrant Clinesmith helped obtain has since been deemed invalid and the surveillance of Page illegal. Never charged with a crime, Page is now suing the FBI and Justice Department for $75 million for violating his constitutional rights against improper searches and seizures.
Explaining the D.C. Bar’s disciplinary process in a 2019 interview with Washington Lawyer magazine, Fox said that “the lawyer has the burden of proving they are fit to practice again. Have they accepted responsibility for their conduct?” His office’s website said a core function is to “deter attorneys from engaging in misconduct.”
In the same interview, Fox maintained that he tries to insulate his investigative decisions from political bias. “I try to make sure our office is not used as a political tool,” he said. “We don’t want to be a political tool for the Democrats or Republicans.”
Bar records from the Clinesmith case show Fox suggested the now-discredited Trump-Russia “collusion” investigation was “a legitimate and highly important investigation.”
One longstanding member of the D.C. Bar with direct knowledge of Clinesmith’s case before the bar suspects its predominantly Democratic board went soft on him due to partisan politics. “The District of Columbia is a very liberal bar,” he said. “Basically, they went light on the him because he’s also a Democrat who hated Trump.”
Meanwhile, the D.C. Bar has not initiated disciplinary proceedings against Michael Sussmann, another Washington attorney charged by Durham. Records show Sussmann remains an “active member” of the bar in “good standing,” which also has not been previously reported. The former Hillary Clinton campaign lawyer, who recently resigned from Washington-based Perkins Coie LLP, is accused of lying to federal investigators about his client while passing off a report falsely linking Trump to the Kremlin.
While Sussmann has pleaded not guilty and has yet to face trial, criminal grand jury indictments usually prompt disciplinary proceedings and interim suspensions.
Paul Kamenar of the National Legal and Policy Center, a government ethics watchdog, has called for the disbarment of both Clinesmith and Sussmann. He noted that the D.C. Court of Appeals must automatically disbar an attorney who commits a crime of moral turpitude, which includes crimes involving the “administration of justice.”
“Clinesmith pled guilty to a felony. The only appropriate sanction for committing a serious felony that also interfered with the proper administration of justice and constituted misrepresentation, fraud and moral turpitude, is disbarment,” he said. “Anything less would minimize the seriousness of the misconduct” and fail to deter other offenders.
Disciplinary Counsel Fox appears to go tougher on Republican bar members. For example, he recently opened a formal investigation of former Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, who records show Fox put under “temporary disciplinary suspension” pending the outcome of the ethics probe, which is separate from the one being conducted by the New York bar. In July, the New York Bar also suspended the former GOP mayor on an interim basis.
Giuliani has not been convicted of a crime or even charged with one.
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Paul Sperry is an investigative reporter for RealClearInvestigations. He is also a longtime media fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. Sperry was previously the Washington bureau chief for Investor’s Business Daily, and his work has appeared in the New York Post, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Houston Chronicle, among other major publications.
Photo “DC Bar Association” by Gabe Cancio-Bello.