Ex-US Prosecutor Upbraided for Ethics Lapses

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     WASHINGTON (CN) — Federal auditors upbraided a former chief law enforcement officer in Wisconsin for disregarding ethics training by hosting fundraisers at his home for fellow Democrats while he was in office.
     Before he retired last summer, while the federal investigation was ongoing, James Santelle had been U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Wisconsin since 2010.
     News reports say Santelle’s abrupt exit from office on July 31, 2015, coincided with a separate investigation into thousands of dollars in personal purchases Santelle placed on his official federal government credit card.
     There is no mention of the credit card investigation in the lengthy report filed Tuesday by the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Justice.
     The OIG says it began investigating Santelle after learning that he had advertised a May 5, 2014, fundraiser at his home to support Jon Richards, a Democratic running for Wisconsin attorney general.
     Though Santelle wound up canceling that event, heeding instructions from the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys, the OIG says it learned that Santelle had repeatedly violated ethics rules over the years.
     Back in 2013, Santelle hosted a fundraiser for Mary Burke, a Democrat who had been running for Wisconsin governor.
     Santelle referred to the Burke event as a “meet-and-greet” — a type of event acceptable for executive department employees like Santelle who are restricted by the Hatch Act.
     Restricted employees who host meet-and-greets cannot solicit or encourage campaign contributions in any way, but the OIG says it “learned that at least one campaign donation was made and accepted by a co-host during the event at his [Santelle’s] home.”
     Santelle told the auditors that the Richards event was not meant to be a fundraiser, but the report says this defense does not hold water.
     “Any possible confusion over the question of whether the event was a fundraiser was eliminated on April 8, 2014, when the finance director sent Santelle a draft invitation that described the purpose of the event as ‘to support Jon Richards’ for attorney general (not merely to ‘listen to’ him) and listed contribution amounts and payment platforms,” the report says. “Santelle did not respond that there had been a misunderstanding and that he could not have a fundraiser in his home or ask that the invitations be recalled. Instead, he responded that the invitation was ‘just fine’ and acknowledged that ‘you or one of the official hosts can and will be responsible for’ soliciting or accepting the funds.”
     This response “clearly” shows that Santelle recognized fundraising as the purpose of the event, according to the report.
     “He took pains to make the irrelevant distinction between himself and the ‘official hosts’ who would be personally soliciting and accepting the money,” the report says. “That distinction would be unnecessary if the purpose of the event was anything other than a fundraiser.”
     The auditors balked at Santelle’s attempts to explain away these emails.
     “We believe that Santelle’s testimony lacked candor and was unbecoming of the former chief federal law enforcement official in the Eastern District of Wisconsin,” the report says.     
     Reacting to the report, Santelle expressed disappointment with the OIG’s assessment.
     “I have always done my very best as a government official to be truthful and straightforward, including throughout and at every step of these investigations,” Santelle said in a statement
     Santelle noted that he resigned as soon as it “became clear … that I had erred and had acted in ways that were inconsistent with Justice Department rules.”
     Meanwhile in its report, the OIG said Santelle should have known better.
     A 1983 graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, Santelle clerked for a federal judge before joining the U.S. Department of Justice.
     Before his appointment to U.S. attorney, Santelle’s past DOJ titles included resident legal adviser at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and Rule of Law Coordinator for the U.S. Mission in Iraq.
     “Santelle’s deliberate indifference to the effect his actions could have on the U.S. Attorney’s Office was particularly concerning given he was a 30-year career employee and the recipient of clear and repeated guidance from the department on such matters,” the report concluded.
     Santelle insists that the importance of nonpartisanship as a DOJ employee was always on his mind.
     “It is my hope that everyone who dealt with me and my office throughout my decades of service and especially during my tenure as United States Attorney found that I upheld those important principles,” his statement concludes.
     The OIG says Santelle did not consult ethics rules or ask for guidance before participating in various fundraisers, including several partisan affairs hosted by attorneys who regularly defended cases his office was prosecuting.
     These attorneys repeatedly invited federal government employees to the events via their government email addresses, and Santelle failed to adequately discourage such invitations, according to the report.
     The OIG says Santelle also met exclusively with Democratic politicians and supporters before the 2014 general election to discuss his office’s role in administering the election and preventing fraud.
     The 45-page report, which closes another 14 pages of appendices, says the OIG will refer the matter to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel for action.
     This office may impose a fine of up to $1,000 and bar Santelle from federal employment for five years, according to online records of federal law. The Department of Justice’s standards are “broader,” the report notes, and several other federal regulations apply.
     Media reports indicate that Santelle is represented by David Ogden, of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, but the attorney did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.