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Stage managed: Senate Democrat fed question to DOJ witness, suggested answer ahead of hearings

An aide to Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff even asked DOJ if witnesses would have "heartburn" or "would have any trouble answering" prearranged questions.

April 29, 2022 4:51pm

Updated: May 1, 2022 10:48pm

Congressional hearings are supposed to show the independence of Congress exercising its oversight of the executive branch. But that wasn't the case with Georgia Sen. Jon Ossoff and the Biden Justice Department in a series of hearings last fall.

Memos made public under the Freedom of Information Act show Ossoff, a freshman Democrat, fed his planned questions and even suggested an answer to Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristin Clarke ahead of two Senate Judiciary Committee hearings last fall.

"Please let me know if you think AAG Clarke would have any trouble answering those (as in, whether it'd be hard for her to give a straight 'yes' to those and I can redirect them to someone on the second panel)," Ossoff's general counsel Sara Schaumburg wrote to Deputy Assistant Attorney General Helaine A. Greenfeld in the department's Office of Legislative Affairs ahead of the first hearing in early October 2021.

A few weeks later as a second hearing was approaching involving Attorney General Merrick Garland, Schaumberg sent another email with more questions and seemingly asked for permission to ask them.

"He obviously won't get to all of these but sharing the full draft universe just in case," the Ossoff aide wrote on Oct. 25, 2021. "Please let me know if anything causes heartburn. I'm particularly curious if you think the phrasing of the second Voting Rights windup/question could be unhelpful in any way."

The memos obtained by Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and reviewed by Just the News provide a rare window into the stage management that occurred between the Biden DOJ and its allies in Congress on what were supposed to be independent hearings.

They show Greenfeld initiated the Q&A sharing back on Oct. 3, 2021, a few days before Clarke was slated to testify in the Senate Judiciary Committee on voting rights and a new bill being considered to honor the late Congressman John Lewis.

"Sara, Just checking in to see if you know if your boss is planning to come to the three SJC hearings with DOJ witnesses this week: VAWA, Antitrust nominee, and Voting Rights, and what questions he might ask if he does come," Greenfeld wrote Schaumberg. "We'd appreciate any intel you might have."

Schaumberg obliged, confirming the senator would be going to the hearings and suggesting the line of questioning and even the preamble the senator would use to frame the question to Clarke.

"Wind-up: Mitch McConnell says the John Lewis voting rights bill is quote 'unnecessary,'" Schaumberg wrote. "According to him, it's already illegal to discriminate in voting based on race, so no one's voting rights are threatened. [See TAB F] Yet Georgia just recently passed a law restricting voting access that particularly targets voting by mail.

"These restrictions were adopted right after the November 2020 election, where, incidentally, voters of color relied on absentee ballots at unprecedented levels and in the case of Black and Asian voters — at higher rates than White voters." 

Ossoff's team forwarded at least four questions the senator planned to ask, including one about the need to protect poll workers from possible violence or intimidation that included a suggested answer endorsing Ossoff's new legislation.

"Election workers are vital to free and fair elections," Schaumberg wrote, providing DOJ with the senator's "wind up," followed by his planned question and the answer he expected to elicit. "That is why, earlier this week, I introduced legislation to expand and strengthen protections for election workers, as well polling places and other election infrastructure, which is included in the John Lewis bill.

"Question: Do you expect these threats to continue to grow and why is it important to expand current protections in the law?

"Expected Answer: It's critical that the law protects the full complement of people involved in ensuring elections are run smoothly. That means expanding current protections for election officials to make sure they [sic] law also protects their families, volunteer election workers, and the people who set up and maintain voting equipment.

"It also means protecting polling places and other infrastructure involved in voting, like tabulation centers. That's why inclusion of your legislation a critical part of the John Lewis bill."

Video of the hearing shows Ossoff asked some of the questions almost exactly as presented in the email, and Clarke's answer to the poll workers protection question closely followed the script, even endorsing the senator's legislation while adding some actions her boss, Attorney General Merrick Garland, took.

"We know that threats, harassment of poll workers and election officials is a real issue," Clarke answered at the hearing. "And we also know these individuals work tirelessly to run elections in our country. And Americans deserve a process which is fair and open, and poll workers and elections officials who conduct these elections in their communities deserve to be able to do their job free from harassment.

"The attorney general has convened an elections threat task force to deal with this issue, and the department welcomes the provisions of this bill which would put in place important protection to counter this very real threat."

The DOJ and Ossoff's office did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

Republicans and outside experts said the emails provide a troubling example of a senator coordinating questions rather than conducting independent congressional oversight.

Some alluded to an episode in the 2016 election in which CNN contributor Donna Brazile leaked a potential question to Hillary Clinton's campaign during a town hall broadcast. Brazile later apologized, writing in an essay she would "forever regret" her actions. CNN dropped Brazile, but Fox News immediately picked her up despite the controversy.

"We senators ought to take our constitutional duty of oversight very seriously," Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told Just the News. "Coordinating friendly questions and answers with the agency in advance of hearings might serve your political interests, but it fails to improve accountability to the taxpayer.

"When it comes to oversight, we should be playing hard ball, not tee ball."

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