President Joe Biden has made eradicating government corruption a top priority: “Fighting corruption is not just good governance,” he recently proclaimed. “It is self-defense. It is patriotism, and it’s essential to the preservation of our democracy and our future.”
But a recent rule change by his own Department of Justice would make it easier for DOJ officials to engage in dubious practices right here at home.
At issue are so-called slush-fund settlements, which allow DOJ officials to channel funds from settlements with businesses to administration-friendly advocacy groups and organizations — undercutting Congress and skirting the law in the process.
Sadly, this kind of executive-branch corruption was rampant under the Obama administration. In that administration’s last two years, DOJ officials funneled close to $1 billion in settlement money to politically favored groups entirely outside of congressional oversight.
To its credit, the Trump administration halted this abusive practice.
Now, with Attorney General Merrick Garland reviving the practice, the Biden administration is not only inviting corruption in government, it’s doing a disservice to victims and hard-working U.S. taxpayers, who deserve to see the money the DOJ obtains from settlements flow back to government coffers.
I should know. As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee from 2013-19, I helped steer an investigation into the practice. What we uncovered was scandalous.
In a settlement with a bank to settle allegations that it exacerbated the 2008 financial crisis, for example, the Obama DOJ ordered the bank to pay $25 million to left-leaning nonprofit organizations. In a similar case, the DOJ had another bank “donate” $50 million to progressive nonprofit groups in exchange for a reduced fine.
Simply put, these are federal dollars that belong to victims and the American public, not special interest groups. Federal law says as much. The Miscellaneous Receipts Act requires that any money received by the government must go to the U.S. Treasury, and not to third parties.
Let’s be clear here: The DOJ’s mandate is to enforce the law and ensure the impartial administration of justice for all Americans. Nowhere in the Constitution or under federal law are political appointees at the nation’s top law-enforcement agency imbued with the power to act as elected legislators to direct funds toward specific policy priorities.
The power to appropriate public funds rests with those elected to Congress by their constituents to represent their interests. Any monies the DOJ collects through settlement are meant to compensate victims and redress harm.
No matter who is in the White House, the DOJ’s enforcement actions should support the legislative appropriations process, not undermine it. That’s why putting a permanent stop to this undemocratic practice deserves bipartisan support. In fact, the bill I introduced back in 2017, the Stop Settlement Slush Funds Act, did receive bipartisan support.
Unfortunately, due to Democratic opposition, the bill never made it past the Senate.
But now, Congress has a second chance to end this corrupt practice. Rep. Lance Gooden, R-Texas, and Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Alabama, have reintroduced the Stop Settlement Slush Funds Act this Congress. It’s a common-sense bill that lawmakers — Democrat and Republican alike — would be wise to support.
By Rep. Bob Goodlatte, who represented Virginia’s 6th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1993-2019. This piece originally ran in the Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press.
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