Los Angeles lawyer E. Randol Schoenberg famously reclaimed a Gustav Klimt painting looted by the Nazis during the Holocaust but belonging to Jewish Viennese survivor Maria Altmann, the basis of the film “The Woman in Gold.” Now he’s seeking justice over what some view as another attempted heist – the United States election.
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Last week, the 50-year-old lawyer and former president of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust sued the Justice Department, demanding it honor the Freedom of Information Act request he filed in November seeking to obtain documents FBI chief James Comey needed to reopen his investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails just 11 days before the election. Many believe the move cost Clinton the presidency.
In the court papers filed against a clerk last Friday, Schoenberg argued that the public has a First Amendment right to see the warrants, given that the case is closed.
On Tuesday Schoenberg’s New York lawyer Dave Rankin launched part two of his attack – filing a separate action in a Manhattan court to unseal the FBI affidavits seeking that search warrant. And the DOJ wasn’t happy about it.
“Something like 10 Department of Justice attorneys flew up from Washington D.C. to block our request,” Schoenberg told Haaretz. “They were trying to say it was the wrong type of action because of the Anthony Weiner investigation.”
But Judge P. Kevin Castel wasn’t buying it. For one, the Weiner case is no longer ongoing. Furthermore, Castel told Justice Department lawyer Jennie Kneedler that Weiner’s sexting scandal was unrelated to the Clinton email investigation and that she faced no further criminal charges. That’s “what makes this case different,” he said.
Castel ordered the Justice Department to hand over all documents related to the search warrant and any argument as to why any of them should be kept top secret to his chambers by Thursday at 5 P.M. He also asked that Weiner, senior staffer Huma Abedin and Clinton be notified so they can be heard if necessary.
“The judge is independent and not worried about his FBI reputation. He cares about the integrity of the courts,” Schoenberg said. “He gets that the public has a right to know what Comey’s motivation was. And he’s moving fast. It’s looking good.”
What led the famed restitution lawyer to go from Klimt to Comey?
“In both cases I’ve been going against a government,” he says. “And oddly, the DOJ attorney Jennie Kneedler is the daughter of Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler, who presided over my case with Maria when it went to the Supreme Court.”
Schoenberg said he’s become equally obsessed with righting what he considers an election wrong as he once was about reclaiming Altmann’s Klimt.
“When I latch on to something I don’t let go until I get the answer,” he said. “That stubborn persistence – it helps. Sometimes I swing at windmills, but once or twice I win.”
In this case, things are looking favorable. “We have a good chance of winning,” he said. “And the judge seems favorable to us.”
Schoenberg said that while the rest of the country got distracted with the election, he couldn’t move past what he perceived as the FBI’s misuse of its investigative power.
“The FBI hadn’t bothered to show ‘probable cause’ that a crime had been committed before conducting a private investigation – that’s our Fourth Amendment right,” Schoenberg said. “Though some media outlets tried to get a hold of that letter authorizing a search warrant, most people got distracted. But I never got over it. The Comey announcement was the thing that switched the election.”
Schoenberg isn’t the only one who thinks Comey’s bombshell announcement just days before the election cost Hillary the U.S. presidency. On Monday night, Clinton campaign aide Jennifer Palmieri told MSNBC host Rachel Maddow that Comey’s actions were “unprecedented, irresponsible and had a devastating impact, regardless of what his intentions were.”
Though she hesitated to call the FBI’s actions politically motivated, she added: “I don’t want to believe Comey was trying to skew the vote to Trump. I understand it’s possible. I think he was trying to cover himself from a lot of Republicans on the Hill.”
But Schoenberg is demanding more answers before he lets Comey and the FBI off the hook. According to news reports at the time, Comey wrote to Congress asking to review the emails on Weiner’s laptop without having secured a warrant.
Schoenberg initially filed a freedom of information request with the Justice Department on Nov 12. When he did not receive a response within 20 days, as he was supposed to, he sued the DOJ.
“Turns out I was a little too early,” he said. “I may have to refile that one. But they also wanted to know if there was enough public interest in the case.”
So on Monday Schoenberg asked his 5,000 Facebook friends and followers to file a FOIA request. He’s confident many did.
As to why the FBI never did reveal whether there was a letter vouching for probable cause, the LA lawyer, who’s also a genealogist, has some ideas.
“Either a lax judge didn’t bother to review the probable cause part or there’s something more nefarious at play,” he says. “Given what we now know about Russian hacking, anything is possible.”
Schoenberg said he filed his suit in New York because that’s where the FBI search warrant was issued – either because that’s the location of Weiner or Trump. Schoenberg suspects somebody in Trump’s inner circle – perhaps former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who boasted on television of having some sort of retaliation planned for Clinton on the eve of Comey’s October surprise – may have provided a false lead to the FBI to secure the warrant.
And if that’s the case, the celebrated lawyer may have just found his second landmark case. “If this is traced back to Donald Trump, it might be cause for impeachment,” Schoenberg wrote on his blog. “It deserves to be investigated fully and openly, and quickly because if a crime was committed in the course of the FBI investigation, it is the crime of the century.”