June 24, 2020 / 7:55 PM / 17 days ago

Lawmakers split along party lines on Justice Department's pot probes

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Attorney General William Barr ordered unneeded probes into the cannabis industry because of his opposition to pot, a Justice Department attorney testified Wednesday in a stormy congressional hearing on allegations of politically-motivated overreach by Barr.

FILE PHOTO - U.S. Attorney General William Barr speaks during a roundtable discussion on "America's seniors" hosted by U.S. President Donald Trump in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., June 15, 2020. REUTERS/Leah Millis

John Elias, a career Justice Department antitrust attorney who served as the division’s chief of staff, testified under oath that since March 2019 the Barr Justice Department investigated 10 mergers in the cannabis industry, even though the industry is not concentrated.

Democrats and Republicans jousted over the propriety of those probes.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat, said it was “unacceptable that he (Barr) would order the Antitrust Division to initiate pretextual investigations into industries that he and the president do not like.”

Republican Representative Louie Gohmert dismissed Elias’ concerns as a “side show,” adding, “It’s a shame we don’t have a serious hearing.”

Elias criticized the marijuana industry investigations as “very burdensome.”

In one proposed marijuana merger, the antitrust staff calculated post-merger market share at 0.35 percent, far below the double-digits, which normally causes antitrust concern, Elias said in written testimony.

At one point, staff discontent was so marked that Makan Delrahim, who heads the division, addressed the issue at a staff meeting in September 2019, according to Elias, who quoted him as saying the investigations were being done because “the fifth floor,” where Barr’s office is, does not like the industry.

Barr said in his confirmation hearing in early 2019 that he disagreed with a decision by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reverse a policy easing federal enforcement of marijuana laws but would “not go after companies” that had relied on Obama-era guidance.

Representative Doug Collins, a Republican, pointed out that the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility had found the cannabis probes to be appropriate, and said that Elias had sought to work for the committee Democrats.

“The credibility of this is going down quickly here,” he said.

Elias also said that a probe of four automakers began the day after Trump tweeted on Aug. 21 that he was angered that the companies negotiated with California about air quality emissions standards. The investigation deterred other automakers from joining the California agreements, according to industry officials.

Reporting by Diane Bartz; Editing by Aurora Ellis

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