WASHINGTON – A California psychologist convicted of tax evasion was at the center of a mysterious, recently disclosed Justice Department investigation into whether White House officials were illegally lobbied to obtain a presidential pardon.
The effort to obtain the pardon for the psychologist, Hugh Baras, involved a prominent Washington attorney and a major donor to President Donald Trump, according to lawyers involved in the case. But lawyers for both men say neither is under investigation.
One of the lawyers, Reid Weingarten, confirmed that the pardon was sought on behalf of Baras. That was also confirmed by another person familiar with the investigation, who insisted on anonymity to discuss a Justice Department investigation.
The new details only partly answer questions that emerged after a court document was unsealed this week revealing that federal prosecutors have been looking as recently as last summer into a possible lobbying and bribery scheme aimed at securing a pardon from Trump.
It’s still not clear who has been targeted in the investigation, what exactly prompted the probe and whether any charges are likely. Most of the information in the 18-page order was redacted, including the identities of the people under investigation.
The New York Times first reported the identities of the people connected to the probe.
The pardon was sought on behalf of Baras, who in 2014 was sentenced to more than two years in prison for tax evasion and theft of government property. Baras did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment Friday.
Sanford Diller, a wealthy real estate developer, reached out for help on Baras' behalf to Elliott Broidy, a well-connected Republican donor with whom Diller was acquainted, according to William Burck, a lawyer for Broidy.
“Mr. Broidy was asked by Mr. Diller to refer him to a DC lawyer who could assist on a clemency petition," Burck, said in a statement. "Mr. Broidy sent him to Abbe Lowell. That’s not lobbying, and Mr. Broidy is not under investigation and has not been accused by anyone of any wrongdoing whatsoever.”
Lowell is one of the best-known lawyers in Washington with a client list that includes U.S. senators, lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Lowell did not seek Kushner’s help in the clemency, Baras served his sentence and there was no bribery scheme, according to Weingarten, Lowell's friend and attorney.
“There was no bribe, there was no clemency, the guy went and did his time, and Abbe served him as a lawyer. And that’s the long and short of it," Weingarten said.
After speaking with Justice Department investigators in recent days, Weingarten said, “I do not believe they ever had a quarrel with anything Abbe did.”
Broidy has faced separate legal troubles, pleading guilty in October for his role in a complicated plot to lobby the Trump administration to drop an investigation into the embezzlement of funds from a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund.
It was not clear why Diller was eager to aid Baras, but Diller's son, Bradley, told the Times that “this was his thing.”
“I don’t know what the history of his relationship with Hugh Baras was, why he felt this kind of personal obligation, but he was making a kind of huge effort to help out this person," the younger Diller said.
Bradley Diller did not immediately return phone messages left by The Associated Press.
The investigation burst into the open with the partial unsealing of a court order from August that granted investigators access to communications that a judge said were not protected by attorney-client privilege. The document showed that prosecutors were investigating a possible effort to illicitly lobby the White House for a pardon or sentence communication, as well as the possibility that a bribe could be offered for a pardon or “reprieve of sentence.”
A Justice Department official said earlier in the week that no government official is or was a subject or target of the investigation. A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on Friday.
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