- Matt Graves brought contempt charges against Steve Bannon just a week after becoming US attorney.
- His office is handling January 6 prosecutions and is expected to receive more referrals from Congress.
- Former colleagues say he brings experience with high-profile cases involving public figures.
The federal prosecutors knew that, if they didn’t bring charges, Republicans would accuse the sitting Democratic administration of protecting one of its own. So the decision could not have a whiff of politics.
It was late in the Obama presidency, and House Republicans had referred a top IRS official to the Justice Department in a scandal over whether the tax agency had improperly targeted conservative groups. The IRS official, Lois Lerner, invoked the 5th Amendment to avoid answering questions from the House, but Republicans argued that she had waived her constitutional rights against self-incrimination and should be charged with contempt of Congress.
The Justice Department declined to pursue a case but stressed, in a 2015 letter, that career prosecutors had carefully reviewed the Republicans’ criminal referral. Among the career prosecutors was Matt Graves, then a senior official in the US attorney’s office in Washington, DC.
Six years later, Graves is now the face of that US attorney’s office and grappling once more with politically-charged contempt referrals from the House.
A week after being sworn in as US attorney in Washington, DC, Graves signed the indictment charging Donald Trump ally Steve Bannon with contempt of Congress over his defiance of the January 6 inquiry. In the weeks since, the January 6 committee has only turned up the heat with recalcitrant Trump world figures, taking steps to hold former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and the onetime Justice Department official Jeff Clark in contempt.
The Bannon indictment — and potential for additional referrals — landed on the doorstep of the US attorney’s office in Washington at a time when it is also handling the deluge of prosecutions stemming from the January 6 attack on the Capitol. More than 700 prosecutions have arisen out of the January 6 investigation, which federal authorities have described as unprecedented.
The cases have put the US attorney’s office at the forefront of the Justice Department’s dealings with Congress as the House January 6 committee looks to contempt prosecutions to bolster its aggressive push for answers about the Capitol attack.
Former colleagues of Graves described the Reading, Pennsylvania, native as unflappable and almost uniquely made for the moment with his experience in an uncomfortable area for the Justice Department: the intersection of politics and prosecutions.
“He’s not a novice to these issues. To have someone who has firsthand knowledge of the law, on the sort of issues you have to grapple with, it’s huge. He would have picked it up anyway because he’s a bright guy, but his past experience gave him an upper hand to be able to hit the ground running,” said Channing Phillips, who served as the acting US attorney from March until Graves took office in early November.
Cheney floats a big fish: Trump
It remains unclear how many Trump figures the House will refer to the Justice Department for prosecution out of the congressional inquiry into January 6 — though one big fish has come up in recent days for Graves’ office to potentially consider.
Late Monday, as the House committee investigating January 6 voted to recommend holding Meadows in contempt, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming appeared to raise the possibility that the congressional inquiry could prompt the Justice Department to prosecute Trump over his conduct during the Capitol breach.
Cheney, the committee’s Republican vice chair, said text messages to Meadows were “further evidence of President Trump’s supreme dereliction of duty during those 187 minutes.”
“And Mr. Meadows testimony will bear on another key question before this Committee: Did Donald Trump, through action or inaction, corruptly seek to obstruct or impede Congress’s official proceeding to count electoral votes? Mark Meadows’ testimony is necessary to inform our legislative judgments,” she said.
In spite of attention surrounding his office, Graves has so far kept a low-profile in his first month as US attorney. He’s made no comment about a potential Trump prosecution, which shouldn’t be a surprise for someone of his position except for the fact one of his recent predecessors had publicly suggested such a case was under consideration during a controversial interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes” back in March.
Shortly after his Senate confirmation, Graves delivered remarks at an annual gathering of current and former prosecutors in the US attorney’s office. But he has not given any public interviews or held press conferences since then. A spokesman for his office declined to comment for this article.
Former colleagues said Graves’ early approach is in keeping with his measured, mild-mannered style. But he could begin to step out in coming months as Bannon goes to trial next summer and criminal proceedings pick up against January 6 defendants.
“He won’t seek the limelight but won’t shy away from it either,” said Ron Machen, a partner at the law firm Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale and Dorr who served as the US attorney in Washington under the Obama administration.
In his current job, Graves is the face of the largest US attorney’s office in the country — a size owed, in part, to its unique role as a federal and local prosecutor for the District of Columbia. Graves could adopt a more public-facing posture as the nation’s capital confronts a year in which it recorded 200 homicides, a level of deadly violence it has not seen since 2003.
Jesse Jackson Jr. and Roger Clemens
Graves previously served in the US attorney’s office from 2007 to 2016, a period in which he rose to become a top public corruption prosecutor. His nearly decade-long tenure was highlighted by the prosecution of former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois, a onetime rising star in Democratic politics who pleaded guilty in 2013 to making lavish purchases and other personal expenditures with campaign funds.
Jackson’s guilty plea and 30-month prison sentence marked a triumph for the US attorney’s office in a high-profile, politically-sensitive case against the son of the influential civil rights leader. But Graves also witnessed earlier in his tenure the failed prosecution of the former baseball star Roger Clemens on charges he lied to Congress in insisting that he never used steroids during his long career.
Graves was not personally involved in the case, but former officials in the US attorney’s office said the verdict underscored the challenges and pitfalls of politically-fraught prosecutions. Former officials said Graves is likely to draw on those experiences as closely-watched cases connected to the Trump era continue coming to the US attorney’s office.
“He’s not somebody who is going to be influenced one way or the other. I think he really will do the right thing, regardless of whether it’s a referral with pressure from Democrats. “And, if the tables turn in 2022, who knows what referrals are going to come then?” said Matthew Solomon, a former top official in the US attorney’s office who once supervised Graves.
“In these kinds of cases, it’s like brain surgery, and you have to have the judgment,” he added. “You have to have an understanding of history, of what’s happened in the past with these cases, and of political dynamics. And of course the touchstone is, in the end, doing what is right – but that often means cutting through a lot of noise and that takes force of personality as well as finesse.
Firepower from the SEC
As Graves has settled in as US attorney, he is also reconnecting with a former colleague from his time as a career prosecutor.
Graves has recruited Bridget Fitzpatrick, a former federal prosecutor now serving as the Securities and Exchange Commission’s chief litigator, to return to the US attorney’s office as his top deputy, according to multiple people familiar with his pick. Fitzpatrick is expected to join the office later this month or in early 2022 after completing a background process.
In her more than five-year tenure as a public corruption prosecutor, Fitzpatrick helped convict a sitting member of the District of Columbia’s city council on charges he embezzled more than $350,000 earmarked for youth programs. She left the US attorney’s office in late 2012 to join the SEC as the commission pushed to bring in more trial expertise in the aftermath of the financial crisis.
In 2013, she won a court decision finding the former Goldman Sachs trader Fabrice Tourre — the self-proclaimed “Fabulous Fab” — liable for fraud. Tourre had become a symbol of Wall Street’s role in the financial meltdown.
The January 6 cases and contempt referrals from Congress will dominate the headlines of Graves and Fitzpatrick’s tenure. But with their combined experience, Graves and Fitzpatrick have a chance to reinvigorate an office that was demoralized in the final year of the Trump administration as Justice Department leaders intervened in prosecutions to the benefit of the then-president’s political allies, former officials said.
“Yes, they have to see through the January 6 cases. Yes, they have to deal with the congressional referrals. But, to me, I think a big project for them is also going to be rebuilding a significant white collar portfolio in that office,” said Solomon, who served as the SEC’s chief litigation counsel following his stint in the US attorney’s office and recruited Fitzpatrick to the commission.
Solomon said they have the “full package, which is incredibly rare, of being incredibly hard-working, having really good white-collar instincts and being very, very intelligent and also very good trial lawyers.”
Ben Carson, Nike & GE
Graves joined the law firm DLA Piper as a partner after stepping down in 2016 as the chief of the fraud and public corruption unit within the federal prosecutor’s office. His role at the Justice Department put him in charge of the team that reviewed referrals from Congress and other cases involving well-known figures.
In private practice, his work continued to feature public figures and closely-watched cases.
Among his clients was Ben Carson, a former 2016 Republican presidential candidate who served in the Trump administration as secretary of housing and urban development. Graves’ roster of corporate clients included Nike, General Electric and the news outlet Al-Jazeera, according to his financial disclosure.
Public court filings show that Graves represented Al-Jazeera in litigation involving the professional baseball players Ryan Zimmerman and Ryan Howard, who sued the news outlet over a documentary alleging that they used performance-enhancing drugs. Graves withdrew from the case in July after President Joe Biden nominated him for the US attorney role.
In recent years, he has also represented the oil-rich state of Qatar, T-Mobile and the Bank of Palestine, amassing a client roster that has concerned good-government advocates who have raised alarm over the private sector ties of Biden appointees.
But former leaders of the US attorney’s office said the defense-side perspective will only help Graves as he makes closely-scrutinized decisions in the political crucible.
“He’ll game it out, he’s methodical. He’ll look at the case law precedent and weigh the pros and cons. He’s not just a career prosecutor but has been on the defense side and represented individuals and organizations as well,” Machen said.
“The ability to understand both sides of an issue rather than view the matter through only one type of lens is critical in these sorts of high-profile matters,” added Machen, who held Graves’ job from 2010 to 2015. “You have to be able to see the whole playing field and he has got the experience to do that and to do it effectively.”