(CN) — The steady trickle of condemnation greeting FBI director James Comey's foray into presidential politics this past week has become a flood, with three former attorneys general joining nearly 100 angry former federal prosecutors in denunciations.
The last three U.S. attorneys general Eric Holder, Michael Mukasey and Alberto Gonzalez have each gone public in denouncing a letter that Comey sent to lawmakers stating that the bureau learned about the "existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation" into Hillary Clinton's private email services.
That list does not include current U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who is said to have discouraged Comey from going public with that information.
On Monday morning, the Washington Post ran an editorial by Holder calling Comey's announcement a "serious mistake."
Holder's signature appears first on an open letter by nearly 100 former federal prosecutors and Justice Department officials who found Comey's announcement "troubling."
"Many of us have worked with Director Comey; all of us respect him," the letter reads. "But his unprecedented decision to publicly comment on evidence in what may be an ongoing inquiry just 11 days before a presidential election leaves us both astonished and perplexed. We cannot recall a prior instance where a senior Justice Department official — Republican or Democrat — has, on the eve of a major election, issued a public statement where the mere disclosure of information may impact the election's outcome, yet the official acknowledges the information to be examined may not be significant or new."
In his letter to Congress, Comey said he did not know what the emails contained or even whether Clinton wrote or received them.
"I am writing to inform you that the investigative team briefed me on this yesterday, and I agreed that the FBI should take appropriate investigative steps designed to allow investigators to review these emails to determine whether they contain classified information as well as to assess their importance to the investigation," the FBI director wrote at the time.
After news of the letter broke on Friday, the George W. Bush administration's former ethics lawyer Richard Painter filed an official complaint accusing Comey of violating the Hatch Act, a statute designed to prevent federal officials from inappropriately influencing elections.
The Guardian reported today that the Office of Special Counsel, tasked with investigating such allegations, has opened the case.
Since Clinton's private email servers were located in Chappaqua, New York, some observers have speculated that any investigation would involve the Southern District of New York.
More than a dozen signatories of the letter were high-ranking former prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney's office in that district, including former assistant Watergate prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste; former chief of the criminal division Fred Hafetz; and two former chiefs of the criminal division, Michele Hirschman and Nancy Kestenbaum.
These four ex-officials are now in private practice, and only one responded to interview requests by Courthouse News.
Hafetz, now a partner at the Manhattan-based firm Hafetz & Hecheles, spoke only briefly to emphasize his respect for Comey and disappointment with the decision that he took on Friday.
"He was wrong. This was bad judgment," Hafetz said, adding, "I don't want to say very much because I have a lot of respect for Comey, beyond what I said."
A Republican appointed by President Barack Obama, Comey has long enjoyed broad, bipartisan respect in the Beltway and within the Justice Department before his letter.
The current controversy has prompted a broad reassessment of that reputation, with several editorials noting this is not the first time Comey has been accused of abusing his office for partisan gain.
Comey repeatedly claimed that police have shied away from legitimate arrests because of the so-called "Ferguson effect," a discredited theory that law enforcement fails to do its job for fear of captured in a viral videotape.
The White House encouraged Comey to abandon the theory at the time for lack of evidence.
Comey also came to blows with Congress over his crusade to force Apple to weaken iPhone security protections in the wake of the San Bernardino mass shooting investigation.
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