In Texas, questions grow about a lesser-known US Attorney ousted by Attorney General Barr

Washington (CNN)Over Memorial Day weekend, Attorney General William Barr removed a low-profile US attorney in Texas following the public airing of a dispute over an investigation into Walmart — a move that didn’t draw the same attention as the firing of the high-profile US attorney in Manhattan, but is now raising new questions about political interference inside the Justice Department.

Joseph Brown, the US attorney for the Eastern District of Texas and a Trump appointee, was pushed out after ProPublica published a nearly 7,000-word story headlined “Walmart was almost charged criminally over opioids. Trump appointees killed the indictment,” which described an internal battle over a Texas prosecutor’s efforts to bring criminal charges against Walmart, according to people familiar with the matter. Walmart has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

Brown quietly resigned, but now the forced exit from last month is getting renewed attention as the latest move that has stoked concerns about the politicization of the Justice Department under Barr.

    The House Judiciary Committee is investigating the matter, sources with knowledge of the matter told CNN, and has lined up a witness who filed a whistleblower complaint with the Justice Department inspector general to testify about the handling of the Walmart investigation.

    The latest ouster by Barr comes to light as a number of clashes have burst into the open from last weekend’s firing of Geoffrey Berman, the US attorney for New York’s Southern District who was investigating Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, to the public testimony from two career prosecutors who alleged top level Justice officials interfered in politically-sensitive cases.

    The Justice Department declined to comment.

    Late last month, Brown was contacted by a Justice Department official in Washington and given an ultimatum, he could resign or it would go “differently,” according to a person familiar with the exchange.

    The official didn’t explain why Washington officials wanted Brown to leave, according to the person, “but it was clear it was related to ProPublica. That’s the only explanation.”

    Senior Justice Department officials were angered by the detailed public airing of internal DOJ discussions and a statement Brown provided to ProPublica that they viewed as violating rules governing ongoing cases, people familiar with the matter say.

    Statement infuriates DOJ

    The ProPublica story detailed efforts by Texas prosecutors to bring criminal charges against Walmart and one of its employees and a civil lawsuit against the company relating to its distribution of opioids. The story said Texas prosecutors were blocked at several steps in the investigation by officials in Washington.

    ProPublica said its article was based on hundreds of internal Walmart documents and investigative documents, correspondence the company exchanged with DOJ officials, and interviews with nine people familiar with the investigation.

    Walmart responded in the ProPublica story with a statement, which was provided to CNN, that Texas prosecutors engaged in misconduct and threatened “meritless criminal charges against Walmart in order to extort an unjustified civil settlement.” The company said it was told that Texas prosecutors sought to “embarrass” Walmart.

    In the ProPublica article Brown responded to Walmart’s allegations defending the investigations, which he said are ongoing.

    “We are confident that once all of the facts in this matter are public the hollowness of this criticism will be apparent. It is not the goal of our office to embarrass Walmart. Walmart’s behavior in dispensing opioid medication in the middle of a public health crisis should embarrass Walmart,” Brown said, while confirming ongoing criminal and civil investigations into the company.

    The statement infuriated senior Justice Department officials, according to people briefed on the matter.

    That same month, in a letter to Barr, House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler asked for documents and correspondence between the Attorney General’s office and the US Attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Texas related to “any civil enforcement actions or criminal investigations of Walmart Inc. involving violations of the Controlled Substances Act or False Claims Act.”

    Randy Hargrove, a spokesman for Walmart, said the company “did not know Joe Brown was leaving his position and do not know why.” Walmart has not been contacted by House investigators, he said.

    People familiar with the Walmart investigation have confirmed to CNN that DOJ officials in Washington stopped the Texas prosecutors from bringing a criminal case. The Texas office’s civil investigators prepared a lawsuit against Walmart but the case has not moved forward, one person familiar with the matter said.

    Fallout in Texas

    Joshua Russ, the assistant US attorney in Texas overseeing the civil investigation and the co-head of a Justice Department working group, resigned in October after the civil investigation stalled.

    In his resignation letter, which was published by ProPublica, Russ wrote, “I appreciate that there are rational disagreements about how best to proceed, and I respect those divergent views. However, I deeply regret that Department leadership prevented EDTX from filing its lawsuit in 2018.”

    “When I took my oath of office, I invoked God’s judgment and swore that I would support and defend the Constitution and that I would ‘well and faithfully discharged the duties of the office,'” Russ’s letter said. “Corporations cannot poison Americans with impunity. Good sense dictates stern and swift action when Americans die,” it said.

    Brown agreed to resign and in his parting statement alluded to the Walmart investigation without identifying it by name.

    “We must win the fight against opioid abuse in order to save our country. But in order to be effective, we must be willing to prosecute all facets of the expansive network that feeds these destructive drugs into our communities. Players both big and small must meet equal justice under the law,” Brown said.

    Brown was replaced by Stephen J Cox, a Barr pick who ran the civil division in Washington. According to ProPublica, when Texas prosecutors wanted to file a civil lawsuit against Walmart Cox was among the Washington officials who said it wasn’t ready.

      Earlier this year a working group of career lawyers that included Justice headquarters and US Attorney’s offices around the country which had been working on a broad civil settlement with Walmart, complained that their efforts were being impeded because of tactics by Brown’s US attorney’s office, according to a person briefed on the matter.

      This spring they asked that the Texas eastern district’s office be removed from the working group, the person said.

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