The Justice Department Spent Nearly Two Years Fighting To Hide The Identity Of A US Attorney Accused Of Misconduct

A federal judge ordered DOJ to release the now-former US attorney’s name after BuzzFeed News sued.

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department’s inspector general announced in May 2017 that an unnamed US attorney, who had since retired, committed misconduct in office. He’d had an affair with a subordinate, according to the one-page release, created a hostile work environment, and potentially violated department sexual harassment rules.

Two years later — after BuzzFeed News went to court — a judge found that the public’s interest in bad behavior by top government officials outweighed their right to privacy and forced the Justice Department to release his name late last week: Stephen Wigginton, who served as a US attorney in Illinois from 2010 to 2015.

Although Wigginton’s name is now public, much of the inspector general’s report remains redacted. The case highlights the lengths government agencies will go in some cases to shield officials at the highest levels from public scrutiny, even after the agency’s own watchdog finds proof of misconduct.

In an opinion in March ordering the release of Wigginton’s name, US District Judge Vernon Broderick in New York wrote that the Justice Department left out key facts in arguing that the public wasn’t entitled to know the identity of the US attorney because the case was only about an “improper, consensual relationship.”

“Instead, the improper relationship was so open and obvious that it caused employees within the Office to feel powerless, embarrassed, and distracted, and resulted in a work environment that some described as unbearable and hostile,” the judge wrote. “In addition to work environment issues, the conduct had an impact on the operations of the Office since it resulted in disparate treatment regarding bonuses and disciplinary actions, and led some to avoid the U.S. Attorney and Supervisory AUSA at all costs.”

In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Justice Department spokesperson Wyn Hornbuckle said, “Following the OIG’s investigation into this matter, the Department took appropriate steps to assess and address the issues outlined in the OIG’s report. The department has complete confidence in the new leadership and overall professionalism of the [US attorney’s office] in the Southern District of Illinois.”

Wigginton did not return requests for comment on Monday. According to Illinois state bar records, he’s still licensed to practice in the state. After leaving the US attorney’s office and going into private practice, federal court records show he handled several criminal cases as a defense lawyer; he withdrew earlier this year from one case citing injuries from a car accident in February. The Belleville News-Democrat reported in January that he’d been arrested on suspicion of driving drunk.

BuzzFeed spokesperson Matt Mittenthal said in a statement: "We're pleased with this outcome, which upholds federal transparency laws and allows BuzzFeed News to provide the public with key details about misconduct at the highest levels of law enforcement — without further delays."

“Unbearable atmosphere”

According to the inspector general office’s report, Wigginton stepped down as US attorney for the Southern District of Illinois in December 2015, soon after the watchdog office began investigating complaints that Wiggington’s relationship with a still-unnamed supervisory assistant US attorney created an “unbearable atmosphere” in the office. A year and a half later, on May 1, 2017, the inspector general submitted its final report, and the office put out a public release two weeks later.

BuzzFeed News filed a Freedom of Information Act request for a copy of the full report the same day the inspector general’s office announced its findings. It took less than a month for DOJ to respond, sending a copy of the 14-page report on June 12, 2017. But it was heavily redacted, including Wigginton’s name. One page was completed blacked out, two pages were almost completely blacked out, and other parts of the document were partially redacted. The department invoked two exceptions to the federal public records law that protect information that could violate someone’s privacy.

BuzzFeed News challenged the redactions through DOJ’s internal appeal system, arguing that the weight of any privacy issues went down the higher the rank of the official, and that the public’s interest in what happened and how it was handled was “overwhelming.”

In September 2017, the Justice Department rejected the appeal, and BuzzFeed News filed suit a month later. In the lawsuit, BuzzFeed News narrowed its request to the identities of the US attorney and supervisory US attorney, and any redacted material that related to both substantiated and unsubstantiated allegations; it did not seek information about witnesses or the name of the special agent who wrote the report.

Civil lawsuits can move slowly. Lawyers from the Justice Department and BuzzFeed News spent much of 2018 trading legal briefs.

The government argued the misconduct identified by the inspector general’s office was rooted in “inappropriate behavior of a personal and intimate nature,” and that revealing the names of the US attorney and the supervisory assistant US attorney would not “illuminate anything more about the actions of the government.” The public parts of the report described the conduct at issue and the inspector general’s findings, the department said, and disclosing the name of the US attorney would “tell the public nothing more about what the government is up to.”

“The unredacted portions of the Report concern an improper, consensual relationship at the workplace, and while such a relationship may have had collateral effects on the work environment, it is primarily a personal matter, the disclosure of which serves no purpose other than to embarrass those involved,” the department argued in its March 2018 brief.

BuzzFeed News countered that the affair was more than a personal matter — the inspector general’s office was looking into allegations that it led to “disparate treatment” about bonuses and office discipline. The supervisory AUSA had received cash awards and salary increases for her performance during several years when Wigginton reviewed such decisions, the report noted. When the inspector general’s office interviewed Wigginton, he admitted the relationship but denied he’d given the supervisory AUSA preferential treatment.

The inspector general’s office also probed concerns that the US attorney’s relationship with a subordinate created at least an appearance of bias when it came to office dynamics, and employees felt uncomfortable reporting their discomfort. Rumors of the affair were being discussed at the federal court where attorneys in the office practiced, which was “embarrassing” for office employees, the inspector general’s office found.

“Many employees felt extremely stressed, powerless, and avoided Wiggington and [REDACTED] at any cost,” the report said.

Wiggington told the inspector general’s office that he suspected the complaint against him was “likely timed to meet agendas of a few ‘malcontents,’” according to the report, and that he didn’t think the affair had affected the operations of the office — instead, he pointed to its high performance record during his time as US attorney.

The inspector general’s office ultimately found that Wigginton violated department ethics rules in how he carried on the relationship, as well as the department’s regulations and policy against sexual harassment. The office wrote in the report that they found some of Wigginton’s claims “deeply concerning and to evidence a lack of full acceptance of responsibility for his misconduct.”

“Names matter”

BuzzFeed News’ lawyers cited these and other findings in the report, writing, “In light of this, the DOJ cannot credibly assert that the degree of wrongdoing is anything but serious.” The lawyers argued that information about what happened in the US attorney’s office was that much more relevant now given public interest in sexual harassment cases, and when it came to misconduct at the highest levels of government, “names matter.”

“It is one thing, for example, to know that sexual harassment is present in Congress; it is another for the public to know that Rep. John Conyers was involved in that wrongdoing,” BuzzFeed News’ lawyer wrote, citing an article published in late 2017 about allegations against Conyers. “The former led to no action, the latter resulted in an early departure from Congress as a result of the public scrutiny surrounding Rep. Conyers’ actions.”

BuzzFeed News also argued for the release of information about unsubstantiated allegations against the US attorney, arguing it would shed light on how the department weighs certain allegations against others.

Broderick’s March decision concluded that the rank of both the US attorney and supervisory AUSA weighed in favor of disclosing their identities. The report outlined the “seriousness and consequences of the wrongdoing,” which also tipped the balance in favor of transparency, he found.

“Contrary to the Government’s contention,” the judge wrote, “the wrongdoing at issue here clearly implicated the core responsibilities of the U.S. Attorney as the chief federal law enforcement officer and head of his judicial district. … Indeed, the actions of the U.S. Attorney and Supervisory AUSA led to the filing of complaints and could have led to lawsuits.”

Broderick did reject BuzzFeed News’ request for information about unproven allegations, finding that since BuzzFeed News didn’t have any evidence of “impropriety” in the investigation, the privacy interests of those involved did outweigh the public’s interests.

The Justice Department asked Broderick to delay enforcing his order, saying they were considering an appeal. The government also filed a motion asking the judge to reconsider ordering the release of the name of the supervisory AUSA, arguing that their privacy interest should be given more weight.

Earlier this month, BuzzFeed News reached a deal with the government — the Justice Department wouldn’t appeal, and BuzzFeed News would give up its request for the supervisory AUSA’s name. The Justice Department released the less redacted version of the report to BuzzFeed News on May 17.

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