The Perils Of Romance

One of Attorney General Janet Reno's top troubleshooters at the Justice Department engaged in "egregious misconduct," including improperly using his position to obtain a visa for a Russian woman with whom he was having an "intimate" relationship and then lying about it to investigators, according to a department report.

The 450-page report, released to Congress today by the Justice Department Inspector General's office, found that the actions of veteran official Robert Bratt-who quietly resigned last month-"left him vulnerable to blackmail." Investigators also concluded that his conduct represented a "security concern" in his capacity as overseer of a key Justice unit that coordinates training for foreign police agencies. And the report finds that Bratt's conduct was only part of a pattern of serious security failures within the same unit, including leaving highly classified documents unsecured on desks, sending classified information by email over an unsecured computer system and distributing secret documents to outside contractors and others that did not have clearance to receive them.

Contacted by Newsweek today, Bratt called the report's findings "outrageous" and accused department investigators of relying on "disgruntled" former employees under his supervision. "I factually dispute what they are saying," Bratt said. "Whether I kissed a woman or not has nothing to with the issues, which is whether I used my position to influence a visa. I clearly did not."

The report is almost certain to raise new questions about the management of the Justice Department under Reno's tenure. The Inspector General also found numerous other problems within the unit in question, including "the appearance of favoritism" in the award of a no-bid contract to a former top department official who is a friend of Reno's and abuse of travel and contracting regulations. "At a minimum, there were higher-ups asleep at the switch," says one congressional staffer who has reviewed the report. "The key question is, who is running the Justice Department?" A department spokesman did not respond to requests for comment today.

The findings come after an exhaustive internal inquiry triggered more than three years ago by whistleblowers who alleged widespread fraud and mismanagement within the Justice Department's International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICETAP), the unit in which Bratt once worked.

Although many of the allegations were denied at the time by the principles and senior Justice officials, the inspector general's report substantiated many of the most serious charges, including allegations that Bratt and another department official intervened to obtain visas for women they had met in Moscow while on government business.

Bratt, a veteran official who wore several top hats at Justice, had been named top executive officer of the Justice's criminal division and then was selected to oversee the ICETAP program. In 1997, Reno named Bratt as her personal troubleshooter to straighten out management problems at a high-profile Immigration and Naturalization Service citizenship program.

The inspector general's findings about Bratt were especially sensitive because they revolved in part around conclusions that he lied to cover up a relationship. When first confronted with evidence that he used his official government position to obtain a visa for the Russian woman, Bratt claimed he was "just friends" with the woman. Later, he admitted to an "intimate relationship" with her.

During the past year, the inspector general's office referred Bratt's actions to federal prosecutors for possible criminal prosecution, according to sources familiar with the matter. The U.S. Attorney's office in Washington, D.C., ultimately declined to bring charges against Bratt. But the Justice veteran quietly retired last month, after a 22-year career at the department.

The report laid out this chain of events: As head of the international training program at Justice, Bratt first visited Moscow in November, 1996, during which he received a tour of various tourist sites from a Russian interpreter. The interpreter told Bratt that she also worked for a Russian "match-making" agency. She later told Justice investigators that Bratt told her he would like to meet a single Russian woman. The interpreter put Bratt in touch with a business associate named Ludmilla Bolgak and a friend, Yelena Koreneva. On his next trip to Moscow, in January, 1997, Bratt "socialized extensively" with the two women, usually meeting them for dinner or drinks, the report says.

During the January trip, Bratt invited the women to come visit him in the United States. When one of the women mentioned that she had previously had problems getting a visa, Bratt "investigated how Russians could obtain visas" and made inquiries about a special process--called the "referral process''--by which Russians are let into the United States on the grounds that their entry into the country serves a government interest.

According to the report, Bratt then took steps to smooth the way for Koreneva to obtain such a visa, telling a U.S. embassy official that Koreneva "might work for the Department of Justice in the future." In his interview with Newsweek, Bratt strongly disputed he ever said this. But the report concludes that during his next trip to Moscow in March, 1997, Bratt and a colleague, Joseph R. Lake, Jr., arranged to get special "referral" visas for the two women. Bratt personally picked up the visa application forms from the U.S. embassy and then Lake filled them out, stating that "applicants have worked with the Executive Officer (EO) Criminal Division in support of administrative functions, Moscow Office." In fact, the Inspector General's report states, "We determined that neither woman had ever worked for Bratt or the Criminal Division....We concluded that the statement on the referral form was false."

Bratt insisted he knew nothing about what Lake wrote on the forms and that all he did was pick up the forms from the U.S. embassy. He also noted that neither women ever actually came to the United States under the disputed visas.

The report states: "We concluded that Bratt's intimate involvement with a Russian citizen about whom he knew very little, his invitation to her to visit the United States and his office, his improper use of his government position to obtain a visa for Koreneva and Bolgak and his attempt to conceal the true nature of the relationship left him vulnerable to blackmail and represented a security concern."

The report also questioned the award of a consultant's contract to Jo Ann Harris, the former chief of the criminal division under Reno, in December 1996-one year after she left the department. Harris is a friend of Reno's. The no-bid contract, to arrange international conferences, netted Harris $27,000 for 42 days worth of work and raised "the appearance of favoritism," the report said, because there was the lack of a clear record setting for how and why she was being paid for the service.