The Washington Post editorial board on Friday criticized Attorney General Eric Holder for his response to the oil spill, calling his announcement that the Justice Department had opened a criminal probe into the matter “odd” and “discomfiting.”
Last month, Holder traveled to the Gulf coast and, during a press conference, said the DOJ had opened a criminal investigation of the spill. Holder declined to say which companies were being investigated.
The announcement was unusual: Justice Department officials almost always decline to confirm or deny the existence of a criminal investigation. According to the U.S. Attorneys manual — the document that governs the behavior of DOJ attorneys in the field — prosecutors can only confirm probes when officials determine that an extraordinary event justifies public acknowledgment.
“In matters that have already received substantial publicity, or about which the community needs to be reassured that the appropriate law enforcement agency is investigating the incident, or where release of information is necessary to protect the public interest, safety, or welfare, comments about or confirmation of an ongoing investigation may need to be made,” the manual states. “In these unusual circumstances, the involved investigative agency will consult and obtain approval from the United States Attorney or Department Division handling the matter prior to disseminating any information to the media.”
One week before Holder announced the probe, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich wrote Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) that “consistent with long-standing policy, we neither confirm nor deny the existence of such an investigation,” The Post noted.
In addition, the editorial also was critical of Holder’s appearance at a meeting between White House officials and representatives from BP.
Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, who lead the White House negotiations that resulted in a multibillion-dollar victims’ compensation fund, was “perfectly capable of ensuring that the fund agreement passed legal muster,” the editorial said, and Holder’s presence “inevitably raised the specter of the criminal probe — and the possibility that it could be used to pressure BP on the size and terms of the fund.”
Administration officials pointed out that Holder attended with other Cabinet secretaries and left the meeting before substantive negotiations had begun.
Because he handles both criminal and civil aspects of an issue, the Attorney General “must take great care to avoid even the appearance of conflict,” wrote the editorial board.
“Mr. Holder may not have crossed that line in the gulf oil matter, but he has come close.”
Read the full editorial here.