Friends and allies of a federal prosecutor tapped last year to dig into a series of leak cases are pushing back against perceptions that he was a pro-Trump crony brought in to try to pin leaks on Democratic members of Congress.
Associates said Osmar Benvenuto, 39, had misgivings about taking the assignment because he feared he might be seen as tarnished by the work given the perceived politicization of the Justice Department under Attorney General William Barr, but the New Jersey-based career prosecutor ultimately decided to accept the job after friends counseled him to do so.
Several of Benvenuto’s friends and mentors said they found it utterly implausible that he would have taken on a political mission for the Trump administration. For one thing, Benvenuto is registered to vote in New Jersey as a Democrat and previously registered as a Democrat in New York City.
Paul Fishman, the Obama-appointed U.S. attorney who hired Benvenuto back in 2012, said he was startled by language in a New York Times story Thursday that suggested Benvenuto — better known as Oz — was part of “a small circle of trusted aides” 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 is at all sympathetic to the Trump administration,” Fishman told POLITICO.
A former colleague in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey, 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,” Bruck said.
Nonetheless, some lawmakers are already publicly demanding that Benvenuto be called before Congress.
“Bill Barr and Osmar Benvenuto should be invited to testify before Congress about the DOJ’s secret seizure of metadata and attempts to get private data on Democratic Members of Congress. If they refuse, they should be subpoenaed,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) tweeted Friday.
A Justice Department spokesperson declined to make Benvenuto available for an interview or to discuss the details of his assignment last year. However, others familiar with the situation said the prosecutor, who typically handled gang and health care fraud cases, went to Washington to oversee unresolved leak cases.
Some of those probes involved subpoenas or similar orders that sought information about devices used by members of Congress. However, those efforts took place in 2018, whereas Benvenuto was not brought in to handle those inquiries until 2020, a person familiar with the matter said. It remains unclear what role he had in another controversial aspect of Justice’s recent leak investigations: efforts to get journalists’ phone or email records.
Former U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito confirmed that he offered up Benvenuto after Barr reached out seeking a seasoned prosecutor to handle unspecified cases at headquarters that had been lingering for a while without resolution.
“The attorney general told me that he wanted someone who was an experienced prosecutor and wasn’t afraid to make decisions. What he wanted to know was whether or not there was anything to these investigations, whether they should be closed or brought forward,” Carpenito said in an interview. “I told him Oz Benvenuto was someone I trusted to give him an honest answer and he has the experience to separate the wheat from the chaff. … I also told him Oz had the intestinal fortitude to give him a real answer: He would say, ‘yes or no.’”
At the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Benvenuto became known for his dogged preparation and unflinching tactics. He served as one of the lead prosecutors on a massive, 80-defendant takedown of a Newark gang known as the Grape Street Crips. As part of the probe, the feds indicted gang member Khalil Stafford in federal court for murder after he’d been acquitted of the same murder in a New Jersey state court.
A federal jury found Stafford guilty of killing a bystander during a shooting spree that turned a 2010 Newark cookout 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 related drug charges.
Colleagues say Benvenuto didn’t linger over decisions and that was part of what landed him the sensitive assignment overseeing leak probes that had dragged on with little action for months or years.
“Stuff doesn’t languish on Oz’s desk,” Fishman said. He said he was aware of Benvenuto’s assignment to D.C. last year, but did not know the specific cases his former colleague was working on.
Fishman added that he “strongly recommended” Benvenuto for another assignment in Washington this year working as a top adviser to the acting head of the Criminal Division.
A former federal judge for whom Benvenuto clerked, Stephen Robinson, said Benvenuto came to him last year to discuss whether he should take on an unspecified special assignment in Washington.
“I never knew what it was about, but I did know he was asked to do it. Oz did what good, honest DOJ employees do: that is, he answered the call,” the former judge said.
Robinson, who was U.S. attorney in Connecticut under President Bill Clinton and was nominated to the bench by President George W. Bush, saw the assignment for his former clerk as similar to challenging taskings that his former deputy in Connecticut, John Durham, accepted under various administrations.
Robinson also said he was confident Benvenuto would have resisted any outcome that he didn’t think was justified.
“If there would be an instance where he had to push back on something he didn’t feel was appropriate, I’m confident that would be the case,” the former judge said. “When he was a clerk, he did that with me as a judge.”
An ex-prosecutor who worked with Benvenuto on the Grape Street Crips cases, Barry Kamar, described his former colleague as a straight shooter who sought to build cases that were “airtight.”
“Oz is a prosecutor par excellence. He’s straight out of central casting, in terms of hard-nosed, buttoned-down guy who just follows the evidence wherever it leads,” Kamar said. “He’s a technocrat. He’s not an ideologue…. He would’ve been the worst person to select to do a political hit job.”
Kamar also said the fact that the cases Benvenuto was brought to Washington to resolve seem to now have been dropped proves the point. “If he was really supposed to do a number on someone, he failed miserably,” the ex-prosecutor said.
Benvenuto attended Seton Hall University as an undergraduate before going on to Fordham Law School. While there, Benvenuto authored a 66-page law review student note about a hot topic at the time: the use of foreign law in U.S. judicial decisions.
A footnote to the 2006 article reveals that his main faculty adviser for the article was Daniel Richman, a law professor who is a close friend of former FBI Director James Comey and acted as intermediary in passing some of Comey’s notes to the media in a bid to get a special counsel appointed 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 has not kept in touch with Benvenuto and was not aware of his sensitive D.C. assignment until reading about it in the Times story posted Thursday night.
“He was smart. He was eager and he seemed at the time to have good judgment,” the professor said. “I was a former AUSA and he clearly wanted to be one and we discussed his future. … He persevered.”