Nearly two dozen people from five states are accusing Attorney General Jeff Sessions of lying to the Senate Judiciary Committee about his communications with the Russian government, and subsequently trying to cover up that lie, according to a complaint sent to the Department of Justice.
The complaint, which names 23 residents, states that Sessions gave false and misleading testimony during his confirmation hearing in January when he told the Senate committee that he "did not have communications with the Russians." It further accuses the attorney general of covering up the alleged perjury by directing a spokeswoman to make a public statement saying he did not mislead the committee.
"We feel there is probable cause to charge him with a crime," J. Whitfield Larrabee, a Massachusetts lawyer who represents the 23 residents, told The Washington Post. "We want indictments in the case. We want Attorney General Sessions to be treated just the same as anyone else. We don't think that just because he's the attorney general, that there should be a higher standard to bring charges against him."
Larrabee said the complaint was sent Monday to three Justice Department divisions that investigate alleged crimes and misconduct by agency employees and public officials.
How the agency will handle a complaint against its leader is unclear. Larrabee said the department should appoint a special prosecutor to handle the investigation and prosecution.
A spokesman for one of the divisions, the Office of Inspector General, declined to comment on the allegations. Other Justice Department spokespersons have not responded to a request for comment.
The group of complainants, which includes three doctors and pastor, are from California, Maine, Massachusetts, Oregon and Vermont.
In March, The Washington Post revealed that Sessions met with Russia's ambassador to the United States twice last year and did not disclose those communications when asked during his confirmation hearing. The report intensified calls for a congressional investigation into Russia's involvement in the presidential election and also prompted ethics complaints calling for disciplinary actions against Sessions, who's been an attorney for more than four decades.
After The Post's March 1 story, Sessions acknowledged that he briefly spoke with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July and again at his Senate office in September, but denied discussing President Donald Trump's campaign. The former Republican senator from Alabama, who became Trump's nominee for attorney general in November, has also recused himself from Justice Department investigations related to the election, saying he was following the advice of the agency's ethics officials.
The allegations in the complaint were partially over Sessions's answer to a question by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., during his Jan. 10 confirmation hearing. Franken asked Sessions what he'll do if "anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign" had communications with the Russian government.
"I'm not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians," Sessions responded.
Sessions submitted written statements a week later in response to questions by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt. Leahy asked: "Several of the president-elect's nominees or senior advisers have Russian ties. Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after Election Day?"
His response: "No."
The complaint further accuses Sessions of making additional false statements to cover up the "perjurious testimony." It cited a March 6 letter he wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee in which he defended his earlier testimony, as well as a statement posted on social media saying Sessions never discussed the presidential campaign with any Russian officials.
In the March 6 letter, Sessions said he "correctly" and "honestly" answered questions about a "continuing exchange of information" between Trump surrogates and intermediaries of the Russian government.
"I did not mention communications I had had with the Russian ambassador over the years because the question did not ask about them," he wrote.
Earlier this month, the American Civil Liberties Union filed an ethics complaint against the attorney general with the Alabama State Bar's disciplinary commission. Sessions, whom the Senate confirmed last month following an acrimonious partisan debate, has been a member of the bar since 1973.
Chris Anders, deputy director of the ACLU's legislative office in Washington, claims that Sessions had violated Alabama's rules of professional conduct preventing lawyers from engaging in "conduct involving dishonest, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation," according to the complaint, which also cites The Post's story.
Larrabee, the Massachusetts attorney, also filed a complaint with the Alabama bar around the same time the ACLU did.
"It seems to me that this is part of a pervasive culture of dishonesty in the White House," Larrabee said, citing Michael Flynn, Kellyanne Conway and the president as examples.
Flynn resigned from his post as Trump's national security adviser last month over revelations about his potentially illegal contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States, and his misleading statements about the matter to senior Trump administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, The Post's Greg Miller and Philip Rucker reported.
Conway, counselor to the president, attracted criticism when she said during a television interview in January that White House press secretary Sean Spicer "gave alternative facts" about the size of Trump's inauguration crowd.
President Trump himself has been a purveyor of false claims, many of which have been repeatedly debunked.