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Paul Fishman, the Obama-appointed US attorney who hired Benvenuto back in 2012, said he was surprised by the language in a New York Times story Thursday that suggested Benvenuto – better known as Oz – was part of one Barr was a “small circle of trustworthy helpers”.
“I never asked people about their political affiliation when I hired them. It’s against the law and I wasn’t interested, but given my many conversations with Oz since then, I would be surprised if the Trump administration is sympathetic to him at all, ”Fishman told POLITICO.
A former New Jersey attorney-at-law colleague Andrew Bruck scoffed at the idea of his friend carrying out political orders for Barr.
“The idea that Oz is, or was, Bill Barr’s henchman is just ridiculous. It’s just outrageous, ”said Bruck.
Still, some lawmakers are already publicly calling for Benvenuto to appear before Congress.
“Bill Barr and Osmar Benvenuto should be invited to testify in Congress about the DOJ’s secret seizure of metadata and attempts to obtain private data on Democratic Congressmen. If they refuse, they should be summoned, ”tweeted Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) On Friday.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to make Benvenuto available for an interview or to discuss the details of his assignment last year. However, others familiar with the situation said the prosecutor, who usually handled gang and health fraud cases, went to Washington to oversee unresolved leak cases.
Some of these investigations included subpoenas or similar orders seeking information about devices used by members of Congress. However, those efforts took place in 2018 while Benvenuto was not put in charge of handling these requests until 2020, said a person familiar with the matter. It remains unclear what role he played in another controversial aspect of Justice’s recent investigation: efforts to obtain telephone or email records from journalists.
Former US attorney Craig Carpenito confirmed he offered Benvenuto after Barr reached out to a seasoned prosecutor to handle unspecified cases at headquarters that had lingered for a while with no resolution.
“The attorney general told me he wanted someone who was an experienced attorney and who wasn’t afraid of decisions. He wanted to know whether there was anything to this investigation, whether it should be discontinued or brought forward, ”Carpenito said in an interview. “I told him that Oz Benvenuto was someone I can trust to give him an honest answer and he has the experience of sorting the wheat from the chaff. … I also told him that Oz has the inner strength to give him a real answer: he would say ‘yes or no’. “
Benvenuto became known to the US Attorney General for his persistent preparation and intrepid tactics. He was a leading prosecutor on a massive takedown of 80 defendants against a Newark gang known as the Grape Street Crips. As part of the investigation, the FBI charged gang member Khalil Stafford with murder in federal court after he was acquitted of the same murder in a New Jersey state court.
A federal jury found Stafford guilty of killing a bystander during a rampage that turned a 2010 Newark barbecue into what Benvenuto called a “war zone,” according to New Jersey Advance Media. A judge sentenced Stafford to life imprisonment for the murder and related drug offenses.
Colleagues say Benvenuto took no time to make decisions, and that was part of what earned him the delicate job of monitoring leak detectors that had dragged on for months or years.
“There’s nothing languishing on Oz’s desk,” Fishman said. He said he was aware of Benvenuto’s assignment to DC last year but was unaware of the specific cases his former colleague was working on.
Fishman added that he “strongly recommended” Benvenuto for another assignment in Washington this year to serve as the top advisor to the acting head of the crime department.
A former federal judge Benvenuto served as secretary Stephen Robinson said Benvenuto came to see him last year to discuss whether to take on an unspecified special assignment in Washington.
“I never knew what it was about, but I knew he was asked. Oz did what good, honest DOJ staff do: that is, he answered the call, ”said the former judge.
Robinson, who was a United States attorney in Connecticut under President Bill Clinton and was nominated for President by President George W. Bush, saw the task for his former clerk as a challenge that his former deputy in Connecticut, John Durham, under different adopted administrations.
Robinson also said he was confident that Benvenuto would have opposed any outcome he didn’t think was warranted.
“If there was a case where he had to push back something he didn’t think was appropriate, I am confident that it would,” said the former judge. “When he was still an employee, he did that to me as a judge.”
A former prosecutor who worked with Benvenuto on the Grape Street Crips cases, Barry Kamar, described his former colleague as a straight shooter trying to build cases that were “airtight”.
“Oz is a prosecutor par excellence. He’s straight from the central casting for a hard-core, buttoned-up guy who just follows the evidence wherever it leads, ”Kamar said. “He’s a technocrat. He is not an ideologist…. He would have been the worst person to be picked for a political hit job. “
Kamar also said the fact that the cases where Benvenuto was brought to Washington for resolution now appear to have been dropped proves the point. “If he should really do a number with someone, he failed miserably,” said the ex-prosecutor.
Benvenuto studied at Seton Hall University before moving to Fordham Law School. There, Benvenuto wrote a 66-page student note on a topical issue: the application of foreign law to US court decisions.
A footnote to the 2006 article reveals that his primary faculty advisor for the article was Daniel Richman, a law professor who is a close friend of former FBI Director James Comey and who acted as an intermediary in relaying Comey’s notes to the media appoint a special investigator to investigate the Trump campaign’s alleged links with Russia.
“I remember he was an academic superstar at Fordham,” said Richman, who joined Columbia Law School in 2007.
Richman said he was out of touch with Benvenuto and was unaware of his sensitive DC role until he read about it on the Times story Thursday night.
“He was smart. He was eager and seemed to have good judgment at the time, ”said the professor. “I was a former AUSA and he clearly wanted to become one and we talked about his future. … He persevered. “