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US Attorney Geoffrey Berman asserts independence from Justice Department

Posted March 9, 2020 3:32 p.m. EDT

— Geoffrey Berman, the US attorney in Manhattan, asserted his office's independence from politics on Monday in his first public comments since career prosecutors have clashed with Justice Department leadership over the handling of politically sensitive cases.

Berman's rare remarks follow actions taken by Attorney General William Barr, from his characterization of former special counsel Robert Mueller's investigative conclusions to the sentencing of Trump ally Roger Stone, that have raised concerns among current and former prosecutors that Barr is doing the bidding of the President and politicizing the Justice Department.

Berman, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, was asked by a reporter at a press conference whether the Justice Department had interfered in his office's investigation of Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, two associates of Rudy Giuliani, Trump's personal attorney.

Parnas and Fruman, who were charged with campaign finance violations, worked with Giuliani in his effort to dig up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter's activities in Ukraine. Prosecutors are also investigating Giuliani's efforts in Ukraine, including his attempt to remove then-US ambassador Marie Yovanovitch.

"The Southern District of New York has a long history of integrity and pursuing cases and declining to pursue cases based only on the facts and the law and the equities, without regard to partisan political concerns. My primary commitment is and has been to maintain those core values and that's how our office is operating," Berman said.

Berman's statement is the first time he has spoken out about the independence of the US Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York, which has had a long history of operating apart from the Justice Department and often handles high-profile cases.

Since Barr became attorney general last year, there has been tension between him and Berman. Barr has attempted to a micromanage certain cases by asking more questions than his predecessors, according to people familiar with the relationship. Berman has pushed back, these people say, and recently moved to indict a Turkish bank over Barr's efforts to reach a settlement that would have avoided an indictment.

Barr clashed with federal prosecutors in recent weeks over the handling of two high-profile cases that touch the President, the sentencing of Stone and the oversight of the prosecution of Michael Flynn, Trump's former national security adviser. Barr assigned the US attorney from St. Louis with re-examining the Flynn investigation, among others. He also created a new framework for investigations relating to Ukraine with the appointment of the US attorney in Brooklyn to coordinate any existing investigations and approve the "widening and expansion of existing matters," according to an internal Justice Department memorandum.

That move was perceived by some former prosecutors as an attempt to assert more control over investigations tied to Ukraine, especially those carried out by the US Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York. In addition to the Giuliani investigation, prosecutors are also looking into whether foreign money flowed into Trump's inaugural committee. The office also prosecuted Michael Cohen, Trump's former personal attorney, for violating campaign finance laws in connection to payments made to two women who alleged affairs with Trump.

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