Trump ally Clark attempted 'coup' at US Justice Dept, ethics counsel says

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By Andrew Goudsward

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Jeffrey Clark, a former senior official in the U.S. Justice Department, made false claims as he attempted to enlist the agency in former President Donald Trump's efforts to undo his 2020 election loss, a Washington ethics lawyer said on Tuesday.

Clark is facing a disciplinary hearing which could see him lose his license to practice law. Trump tried to put Clark in charge of the Justice Department in his administration's final days as Clark sought to pursue the former president's false claims of widespread voter fraud.

"What Mr. Clark was attempting to do was essentially a coup at the Department of Justice," Hamilton "Phil" Fox, the District of Columbia Bar disciplinary counsel said in his opening argument.

Harry MacDougald, a lawyer representing Clark, denied that Clark had violated attorney ethics rules. He said Clark was engaged in "internal debate and disagreement" within the department about the impact of voter fraud on the election.

"Mr. Clark should not be here for giving his candid opinion and independent judgment," MacDougald said.

Clark, who served as acting head of the Justice Department's civil division under Trump, faces a multi-day hearing on ethics charges that accuse him of attempting to take actions "involving dishonesty" and that "would seriously interfere with the administration of justice."

Clark sought to send a letter to Georgia officials in December 2020 falsely claiming that the Justice Department had "identified significant concerns" that may have led to Trump's loss in that state, according to ethics charges filed in 2022.

The hearing is being held by a three-member committee of the Board on Professional Responsibility, an arm of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. If it finds that Clark violated ethics rules, it could recommend that his license be suspended or revoked. The full board would take up such a recommendation, with final action in the hands of the appeals court.

The D.C. Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which investigates lawyers accused of violating legal ethics rules, brought the case against Clark.

Trump is the Republican candidate challenging Democratic President Joe Biden in the Nov. 5 U.S. election. Trump faces criminal charges in state court in Georgia and federal court in Washington over his attempts to overturn his 2020 loss to Biden.

Clark is one of Trump's co-defendants in the Georgia case and has pleaded not guilty. Clark is listed as an "unindicted co-conspirator" in the federal case. The ethics panel is expected to delve into incidents relevant to those cases.

Justice Department leaders found no evidence of widespread voter fraud and refused to send Clark's proposed letter. Trump backed off his plan to name Clark as acting attorney general after department leaders and top White House lawyers threatened to resign in protest.

Two of Clark's Justice Department superiors - former acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and former acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue, have cooperated with the ethics probe and are expected to testify during the hearing.

Republican congressman Matt Gaetz, an outspoken Trump ally, and former Trump White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows may testify on Clark's behalf, his lawyers said.

(Reporting by Andrew Goudsward; editing by Will Dunham, Andy Sullivan and Marguerita Choy)