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Herring blasts study of his office as politically motivated

(AP) Attorney General Mark Herring has denounced a wide-ranging review of his office by the state legislature’s watchdog agency as a politically motivated witch hunt.

The Democratic attorney general blasted the review as “baseless” and an “inquisition.” He also said it was designed to “support partisan preconceptions” in a November letter to the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission.

“It is clear to me this process will be nothing more than a search for data points to justify presupposed conclusions, and an exercise in finding evidence to support partisan preconceptions,” Herring said in the letter, which was obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request.

Herring, who has announced plans to run for governor in 2021, urged the commission known as JLARC to “reconsider the propriety” of the review.

His spokesman, Michael Kelly, said the attorney general’s office is currently working with JLARC staff to assist them in the study, but added that “no one should be under any illusions about the partisan, election-year motivations that led to this review.”

At issue is the resolution authorizing the study, which Herring said was filled with inaccurate partisan claims that Republicans used in their campaign attacks during his 2017 re-election campaign. The resolution said that “concerns have been raised about” about Herring’s use of outside counsel and highlights raises Herring approved for his employees without direct approval from the General Assembly.

The AP reported first reported on those raises in 2017 in a story about how the U.S. Department of Justice gave Herring’s office instructions on how to work around the DOJ’s own strict rules for spending money seized in investigations. Herring said the raises, which increased some staff attorneys’ salaries by $15,000 in a year, were proper and necessary. Herring also defended his use of outside attorneys and said one unnamed Republican member of JLARC is trying to “tilt the playing field in favor of law breakers and polluters.”

JLARC’s authorizing resolution was approved by a Republican-led group of lawmakers in 2017. Herring’s opponent in that year’s attorney general contest, Republican John Adams, hailed the review as proof that Herring has misused his office.

JLARC is a long established agency that regularly produces reports on various state agencies. It generally enjoys a strong reputation among lawmakers in both parties and its recommendations often lead to new laws and procedures.

Director Hal Greer said JLARC takes pains to make sure its reports and recommendations are fully insulated from partisan concerns.

“There’s just no political influence anywhere along the way,” he said.

Greer said the authorizing resolution is just a starting point that does not color a report’s finding and is generally “not important in the process” of a review. Greer said he believes Herring’s office has grown more receptive to the review after he explained how JLARC’s process works. JLARC is set to deliver its report by December.

Republican Del. Steve Landes, who is vice chairman of JLARC, said he was confused by Herring’s letter.

Landes said Republicans have had longstanding concerns about Herring’s use of special counsel and other issues raised in the authorizing resolution, and Herring should welcome an objective look at those issues.

“I’m a little befuddled about what all the concern is,” Landes said.

-ALAN SUDERMAN, Associated Press

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