Paul Fishman, the Obama-appointed US lawyer who hired Benvenuto in 2012, said he was taken aback by the language in a New York Times article Thursday that suggested that Benvenuto – better known as Oz – was part of a “little circle of trusted helpers” around Barr.
“I never asked people 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’d be surprised if he sympathizes with the Trump administration, ”Fishman told POLITICO.
A former colleague in the New Jersey United States Attorney’s Office, Andrew Bruck, scoffed at the idea that his friend was carrying out political orders for Barr.
“The idea that Oz is or was Bill Barr’s stooge is just laughable. It’s just outrageous, ”said Bruck.
Nonetheless, some lawmakers are already publicly demanding that Benvenuto be summoned to Congress.
“Bill Barr and Osmar Benvenuto should be invited to testify before Congress about the DOJ’s covert metadata seizure and attempts to obtain private data on Democratic members of Congress. If they refuse, they should be subpoenaed, ”Representative Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) Tweeted on Friday.
A Justice Department spokesperson declined to make Benvenuto available for an interview or discuss details of his assignment last year. However, others familiar with the situation said the prosecutor, who typically handles gang fraud and healthcare cases, traveled to Washington to oversee unresolved leak cases.
Some of these investigations involved subpoenas or similar orders seeking information about devices used by members of Congress. However, those efforts took place in 2018, when Benvenuto was not called upon to deal with these investigations until 2020, a person familiar with the matter said. It is still unclear what role he played in another controversial aspect of recent Justice leak investigations: the efforts to obtain telephone or electronic records of journalists.
Former U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito has confirmed he offered Benvenuto after Barr sought a seasoned prosecutor to handle unspecified cases at headquarters that had been lying unresolved for some time.
“The attorney general told me he wanted someone who was an experienced attorney who wasn’t afraid to make decisions. What he wanted to know was whether or not there was anything in these investigations, whether they needed to be closed or brought forward, ”Carpenito said in an interview. “I told him that Oz Benvenuto was someone I trusted to give him an honest answer and that he has the experience to separate the wheat from the chaff. … I also told him that Oz had the gut courage to give him a real answer: he would say, ‘yes or no’.
In the United States Attorney’s Office, Benvenuto became known for his relentless preparation and steadfast tactics. He was one of the lead prosecutors in a mass withdrawal of 80 defendants from a Newark gang known as the Grape Street Crips. As part of the investigation, the federal government indicted gang member Khalil Stafford in federal court with murder after being acquitted of the same murder in a New Jersey state court.
A federal jury has found Stafford guilty of killing a passerby in a shootout that turned a Newark barbecue in 2010 into what Benvenuto described as a “war zone,” according to New Jersey Advance Media. A judge sentenced Stafford to life in prison for the murder and the related drug charges.
Colleagues say Benvenuto didn’t dwell on the decisions and that’s part of what landed him the sensitive job of overseeing the leak probes that had dragged on with little action for months or years.
“Things don’t languish on Oz’s desk,” Fishman said. He said he was aware of Benvenuto’s DC assignment last year, but was unaware of the specific cases his former colleague was working on.
Fishman added that he “strongly recommends” Benvenuto for another mission in Washington this year as senior adviser to the acting head of the criminal division.
A former federal judge for whom Benvenuto served as clerk, Stephen Robinson, said Benvenuto came to see him last year to discuss whether to take on an unspecified special mission in Washington.
“I never knew what it was, but I knew he had been asked to do it. Oz did what the good and honest employees of the Department of Justice do: that is, he answered the call, ”said the former judge.
Robinson, who was a U.S. Attorney General in Connecticut under President Bill Clinton and appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush, viewed his former clerk’s assignment as similar to difficult tasks that his former Connecticut deputy John Durham, had accepted under various administrative.
Robinson also said he was convinced Benvenuto would have resisted any outcome he didn’t think was warranted.
“If there was a case where he had to push back on something that he did not feel was appropriate, I am confident that would be the case,” said the former judge. “When he was a clerk, he did it with me as a judge.”
A former prosecutor who worked with Benvenuto on the Grape Street Crips cases, Barry Kamar, described his former colleague as an outright gunman who sought to set up “tight” cases.
“Oz is a quintessential prosecutor. He’s straight out of the central cast, in terms of a hard, button-nosed guy who just follows the evidence wherever it leads, ”Kamar said. “He’s a technocrat. He is not an ideologue…. He would have been the worst person to choose for successful political work. “
Kamar also said that the fact that the cases Benvenuto had to resolve in Washington now appear to have been dropped proves the point. “If he was really supposed to do a number on someone, he failed miserably,” said the ex-prosecutor.
Benvenuto attended Seton Hall University as an undergraduate student before continuing his education at Fordham Law School. While there, Benvenuto wrote a 66-page student note on a hot topic at the time: the use of foreign law in US court decisions.
A footnote to the 2006 article reveals that its primary academic advisor for the article was Daniel Richman, a law professor who is a close friend of former FBI Director James Comey and served as an intermediary to pass some of Comey’s notes to the media in an attempt to appoint a special advocate to investigate the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia.
“I remember he was an academic superstar at Fordham,” said Richman, who moved to Columbia Law School in 2007.
Richman said he had not kept in touch with Benvenuto and was unaware of his sensitive DC mission until he read it in the Times article published Thursday night.
“He was smart. He was impatient and seemed to have good judgment at the time, ”said the professor. “I was a former AUSA and he clearly wanted to be one and we talked about his future.… He persevered.”