Kirkland & Ellis partner Brian Benczkowski told a group of senators Tuesday that if he could go back in time, he wouldn’t have taken on a Russian bank as a client.
Benczkowski is President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. He faced little scrutiny until Monday, largely due to his experience in various leadership positions at the DOJ under President George W. Bush and bipartisan support. But news reports Monday revealed Benczkowski represented a Russian bank this past spring that was reportedly under investigation by the FBI for potential connections between its computer servers and Trump’s presidential campaign. Benczkowski and Kirkland’s work for Alfa-Bank thus became the focus of Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
“I was a lawyer in private practice doing what lawyers in private practice do,” Benczkowski said of his work for the bank. Though Benczkowski had no role in the Trump campaign, he served on Trump’s transition team from September 2016 through January 2017. Several Democratic senators appeared concerned Alfa-Bank specifically chose Kirkland & Ellis as its law firm knowing Benczkowski was likely to be nominated for a DOJ position. Benczkowski began work for the bank in March, and was approached about the DOJ post in April, he said.
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota) pushed Benczkowski on whether he would have taken the project had he known he’d be nominated for the Criminal Division post.
“You’re heading up the transition team for DOJ, you go to private practice, you’re asked to oversee this — look at Alfa-Bank’s interactions, computer interactions with Trump — and then you’re nominated for this office. You see that it’s dominating a lot of the questioning. Do you think in retrospect, would you have done this differently?” Franken asked.
After some confusion about Franken’s question, Benczkowski replied he would not have taken the work.
Benczkowski explained how he came to work for Alfa, noting he didn’t bring Alfa’s business to the firm. Kirkland partner Viet Dinh was the “relationship partner,” Benczkowski told the senators. Dinh joined Kirkland last year when it acquired his boutique firm Bancroft.
Benczkowski said he learned of the representation after the client relationship was established and Dinh asked him to oversee an internal investigation at the bank. Benczkowski’s private practice work focused on internal corporate investigations.
Dinh told The National Law Journal he asked Benczkowski to join the project because he’s “as experienced as they come.”
Asked whether Benczkowski’s work for the transition team was a factor in his choice, Dinh said the transition team’s work had long ended and there was no expectation that he would rejoin the government.
“To be perfectly frank, it wasn’t relevant to our analysis. I was just looking for the best and most honest person to supervise this independent investigation and that was Brian,” Dinh said.
Dinh said he worked with Alfa before, and the bank approached him after suspicious activity appeared on its servers in February. Dinh notified the FBI and Justice Department of the activity, and met with officials about the issue in April. Benczkowski had ceased all communication with DOJ on behalf of Alfa by then, Dinh said.
Benczkowski explained to the senators that his work for the bank involved hiring and overseeing an internal investigation of its servers by the U.S.-based computer forensics firm Stroz Friedberg. The firm analyzed activity on the bank’s servers in February and March 2017 to determine whether a hacker or other unknown actors infiltrated its systems. The investigators determined there was no evidence of communications between the bank and the Trump campaign in that time period.
Also in his work for the bank, Benczkowski said he reviewed the so-called “Steele dossier,” an unverified file on alleged links between Russia and the Trump campaign. Benczkowski stressed he did not see the full dossier. He read the pages published by Buzzfeed News to consider whether the bank could sue Buzzfeed for defamation, which it did in May.
Kirkland is not involved in that litigation and Benczkowski stressed he only spent a few hours on the task.
In addition to questions about the bank, Benczkowski faced inquiries from senators about the importance of maintaining independence at the DOJ given Trump’s recent tweets criticizing U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Benczkowski once worked for Sessions in the Senate.
“Those sorts of comments are painful and difficult for me to hear,” Benczkowski said of the president’s tweets.