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The Justice Department’s Office of Public Affairs tries to keep a firm grip on the agency’s communications with the press. But the office gave beat reporters a gift Valentine’s Day by accidentally spamming the department’s daily talking-points memo to journalists. One item of concern: forthcoming stories in two large newspapers about a $980,000 condominium purchase involving Justice’s former top environmental prosecutor, Sue Ellen Wooldridge, and Donald Duncan, a senior executive and top lobbyist for ConocoPhillips (the land deal was first reported in Legal Times on Feb. 12). The stories, according to the memo, will also detail Wooldridge’s later involvement in a settlement that gave the oil company more time to pay millions in fines and comply with anti-pollution rules at its refineries. Among the points department officials were to emphasize in conversations with reporters: that “Sue Ellen went through the proper channels” and that Justice ethics officials had OK’d her business deal with the oil lobbyist; that Justice experts had advised her that she “need not recuse herself from matters involving ConocoPhillips”; and that, at any rate, Wooldridge didn’t play a “personal role” in negotiating the pollution settlement. While the department has been vigorous in pursuing media leaks, chock this one up to human error: “Somebody hit the wrong button,” says one public-affairs staffer.
Jason McLure can be contacted at [email protected].

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