Senate Panel Moves to Empower Justice Dept. Watchdog Over Barr’s Objections

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WASHINGTON — The Republican-controlled Senate on Thursday advanced an effort to expand the power of the Justice Department’s independent watchdog to investigate allegations of ethical violations and professional misconduct by department lawyers, overriding the objections of Attorney General William P. Barr.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 21 to 1 to approve the bipartisan measure, which unanimously passed the House last year. It would shift the responsibility for investigating lawyer misconduct from an office under Mr. Barr’s supervision to the department’s independent inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz.

“The negative ramifications of shielding attorney misconduct from inspector general scrutiny and, eventually, public scrutiny are not hypothetical,” said Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah and the bill’s lead author. He cited the failure of prosecutors to turn over mitigating evidence in the 2008 corruption trial of former Senator Ted Stevens and limits that had been placed on Mr. Horowitz while he scrutinized the F.B.I.’s Russia investigation.

“This is a problem that Congress should want to fix,” Mr. Lee added.

Lawmakers’ push to expand the jurisdiction and powers of the department’s inspector general predates the Trump administration, but its advance is particularly noteworthy at a time when Mr. Barr is already under intense scrutiny for prosecutorial and personnel decisions that critics say smack of political motivation. This week, two department lawyers accused Mr. Barr and other department leaders of politicizing criminal and antitrust cases, issues that Democrats say ought to be under the inspector general’s jurisdiction.

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