WASHINGTON (CN) - The Senate Judiciary Committee approved President Donald Trump's nominee to lead the Justice Department's criminal division on Thursday, despite concerns from Democrats about his past representation of a bank with close ties to the Russian government and his lack of prosecutorial experience.
Brian Benczkowski told the Judiciary Committee about his representation of Alfa Bank, whose leaders are close with Russian President Vladimir Putin, just before he appeared before senators for his confirmation hearing.
He explained to the committee that one of his partners at the law firm Kirkland and Ellis asked him to help represent Alfa Bank after Benczkowski returned to the firm following his time on Trump's landing team at the Department of Justice.
There have also been allegations of ties between Alfa Bank and Trump's campaign after reports surfaced about communications between a Trump Organization server and the bank. However, cyber experts have said that the communications appear innocent, as the server was under the control of a marketing company.
The New York Times reported the FBI looked into the server's communications with Alpha Bank and concluded it was not used for clandestine purposes.
Benczkowski later told the committee that if he had known he was going to be nominated to serve as an assistant attorney general he would not have joined the team representing Alfa Bank and that he pulled back from the investigation after finding out he was being considered for the job.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said Thursday that he was concerned that Benczkowski, a former Republican Judiciary Committee staffer, joining the criminal division could compromise the wall between Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who served on the committee while in the Senate and has recused himself from the Mueller investigation.
Whitehouse said he was reluctant to vote on Benczkowski's nomination without knowing the level of access the criminal division would have to Mueller's investigation, information the Justice Department has not been willing to provide.
"We're being asked to vote on this person in a fog of confusion about whether or not he's basically going to serve as the eyes and ears of the recused attorney general into the special counsel investigation," Whitehouse said.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said at the very least Benczkowski's decision to represent Alfa Bank showed "poor judgment."
Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, defended Benczkowski, noting he willingly allowed the committee to publicly discuss his Alfa Bank representation, which they discovered in the FBI background check senators normally keep private.
"At his hearing the committee members extensively questioned him about his representation of Alfa Bank," Grassley said before the vote. He answered our questions. He was not evasive. His testimony was public."
The committee approved Benczkowski's nomination along party lines with an 11-9 vote, sending him to the full Senate for confirmation.
More fundamental than their questions about Benczkowski's representation of Alfa Bank were Democrats' concerns about his lack of experience as a prosecutor. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., noted that he has never served as a prosecutor and that he told the committee in his questionnaire he has only appeared in court "on 1-2 limited occasions" during his career in private practice.
"Mr. Benczkowski's lack of prosecutorial or courtroom experience is unusual for the head of the criminal division," Feinstein said.
When asked about this lack of experience in questions Feinstein submitted in writing after his confirmation hearing, Benczkowski noted he did work as a white collar criminal defense partner and has "extensive experience" at the Justice Department, where he worked as chief of staff for both the deputy attorney general and the attorney general.
Benczkowski also worked as deputy assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice's Office of Legislative affairs during the Bush administration. A member of the conservative legal advocacy group the Federalist Society, Benczkowski also spent time as counsel to former Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and on the staff of the House Judiciary Committee.
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