DOJ mulled federal charges against Portland city officials over response to unrest

The department declined to say whether it has ruled out charging the officials.

September 17, 2020, 1:19 PM

The Justice Department researched the possibility of bringing criminal or civil rights charges against Portland city officials related to their response to growing unrest in the city throughout the summer, a spokesperson confirmed to ABC News Thursday.

DOJ spokesperson Kerri Kupec declined to say what the results of such research determined or whether the department is still seeking to potentially charge any officials.

The DOJ and Department of Homeland Security previously assailed local officials in Portland for what they argued was purposeful neglect in responding to violent demonstrators who had targeted a federal courthouse in the city and attacked federal agents dispatched there with glass bottles, bricks and other items.

Kupec's statement was first reported by the Associated Press.

In this July 25, 2020, file photo, demonstrators try to topple a steel fence during a Black Lives Matter protest at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse in Portland, Ore.
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP, FILE

Separately, DOJ officials have disputed reporting from news outlets that said Attorney General William Barr asked his civil rights division to explore charges against Seattle's Mayor Jenny Durkan for her role in establishing an autonomous zone for protesters earlier in the summer.

A DOJ official said Barr did not raise the idea and referred to a statement released Thursday evening from U.S. attorney for the Western District of Washington Brian Moran, which said his office was never involved in any type of discussion related to charging Durkan.

"At no time has anyone at the Department communicated to me that Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan is, was, or should be the subject of a criminal investigation or should be charged with any federal crime related to the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP)," Moran said. "As U.S. Attorney I would be aware of such an investigation."

ABC News confirmed Wednesday that on a call with U.S. attorneys last week, Barr also raised the prospect of charging rioters who carry out attacks against federal officials or property with sedition -- attempted violent overthrow of the U.S. government -- sources familiar with the call said.

On the call, Barr raised concerns that unrest that has persisted in several cities throughout the country since George Floyd's death in June could get worse in the weeks leading up to the election.

Barr echoed remarks he has made publicly that federal prosecutors should be aggressive in investigating and bringing a range of federal charges against protesters who commit acts of violence against law enforcement officials or coordinate attacks on government buildings such as the federal courthouse in Portland.

But the call is the first publicly known instance where he has recommended the rarely-used federal statute regarding sedition.

In 2010 the Obama Administration's DOJ brought seditious conspiracy charges against members of the white supremacist Hutaree militia over their alleged role in a plot to kill police officers and civilians. The members were found not guilty of sedition in 2012 when a district judge said the prosecutors failed to prove their plot was part of a conspiracy to overthrow the US government itself.

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