US prosecutors investigating potential White House 'bribery-for-pardon' scheme

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The US Justice Department is investigating a potential crime related to funneling money to the White House in exchange for a presidential pardon, according to court documents unsealed in federal court.

US District Judge Beryl Howell on Tuesday released a heavily redacted order that described what she called a "bribery-for-pardon" investigation.

About half of the 18-page document was blacked out, with the publicly available version providing few details of the alleged scheme, and naming none of the people potentially involved.

It said federal prosecutors in Washington said they had obtained evidence of a bribery scheme in which someone "would offer a substantial political contribution in exchange for a presidential pardon or reprieve of sentence."

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President Donald Trump is tossed a golf ball as he golfs at Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va., Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
President Donald Trump, second from the left, plays golf at Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va., Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Surrounded by Army cadets, President Donald Trump watches the first half of the 121st Army-Navy Football Game in Michie Stadium at the United States Military Academy, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020, in West Point, N.Y. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
El presidente Donald Trump camina por el jardín sur de la Casa Blanca, el 12 de diciembre de 2020. (AP Foto/Patrick Semansky, File)
President Donald Trump boards Air Force One at in Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020, to travel to Michie Stadium at the United States Military Academy to attend the 121st Army-Navy Football Game at West Point, N.Y. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
President Donald Trump speaks during an "Operation Warp Speed Vaccine Summit" on the White House complex, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
El presidente Donald Trump escucha la pregunta de un reportero durante la ceremonia de entrega de la Medalla Presidencial de la Libertad, el máximo honor civil, al exentrenador de lucha y campeón olímpico Dan Gable, en la Oficina Oval de la Casa Blanca, el lunes 7 de diciembre de 2020, en Washington. (AP Foto/Patrick Semansky)
President Donald Trump prepares to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, to Olympic gold medalist and former University of Iowa wrestling coach Dan Gable in the Oval Office of the White House, Monday, Dec. 7, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally for Senate Republican candidates, Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., and Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., at Valdosta Regional Airport, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, in Valdosta, Ga. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump arrives to speak at a news conference in the briefing room at the White House in Washington, Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
President Donald Trump leaves after speaking at the White House, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump arrives to speak at a news conference in the briefing room at the White House in Washington, Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 20: President Donald J. Trump departs after delivering remarks on delivering lower prescription drug prices for all Americans in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on Friday, Nov 20, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 20: President Donald Trump stands by after speaking to reporters about prescription drug prices in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on Friday, Nov 20, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 20: U.S. President Donald Trump prepares to speak to the press in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on November 20, 2020 in Washington, DC. U.S. President Donald Trump held his first press conference in over a week to make an announcement on prescription drug prices as he continues to challenge the results of the 2020 Presidential election. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump watches from the motorcade as he returns to the White House in Washington, DC, after playing golf on November 7, 2020. - Joyous celebrations erupted in Washington on Saturday after Joe Biden was declared winner of the US presidency, as several people poured into the streets of the US capital -- some of them chanting, cheering and singing in front of the White House. (Photo by ALEX EDELMAN / AFP) (Photo by ALEX EDELMAN/AFP via Getty Images)
President Donald Trump plays a round of Golf at the Trump National Golf Club in Sterling Va., Sunday Nov. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
President Donald Trump plays a round of Golf at the Trump National Golf Club in Sterling Va., Sunday Nov. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
President Donald Trump gives two thumbs up to supporters as he departs after playing golf at the Trump National Golf Club in Sterling Va., Sunday Nov. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
President Donald Trump gives two thumbs up to supporters as he departs after playing golf at the Trump National Golf Club in Sterling Va., Sunday Nov. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
President Donald Trump returns to the White House after playing a round of golf, Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump returns to the White House after playing a round of golf, Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump arrives at the White House after golfing Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump talks on the phone as he arrives at the White House after golfing Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump arrives at the White House after golfing Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump participates in a round of golf at the Trump National Golf Course on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Sterling, Va. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
US President Donald Trump watches from the motorcade as he returns to the White House in Washington, DC, after playing golf on November 7, 2020. - Joyous celebrations erupted in Washington on Saturday after Joe Biden was declared winner of the US presidency, as several people poured into the streets of the US capital -- some of them chanting, cheering and singing in front of the White House. (Photo by ALEX EDELMAN / AFP) (Photo by ALEX EDELMAN/AFP via Getty Images)
President Donald Trump returns to the White House from playing golf in Washington, DC on November 7, 2020, after Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 presidential election. - Joyous celebrations erupted in Washington on Saturday after Joe Biden was declared winner of the US presidency, as several people poured into the streets of the US capital -- some of them chanting, cheering and singing in front of the White House. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP) (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump arrives to speak in the Brady Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, DC on November 5, 2020. - Democrat Joe Biden is leading President Donald Trump in the race for the 270 electoral votes that will put one of them over the top, with the Democrat's campaign asserting they believe he has enough votes to win in key battleground states that remain undecided, like Pennsylvania. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020, in Washington, as White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany listens. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 05: U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to speak in the briefing room at the White House on November 5, 2020 in Washington, DC. Votes are still being counted two days after the presidential election as incumbent Trump is in a close race against challenger Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, which remains too close to call. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
El presidente Donald Trump habla en la Casa Blanca, Washington, 5 de noviembre de 2020. (AP Foto/Evan Vucci)
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The order said prosecutors were also investigating a "secret lobbying scheme" in which two unidentified individuals "acted as lobbyists to senior White House officials, without complying with the registration requirement of the Lobbying Disclosure Act."

A Justice Department official said no government official is or was a target of the investigation.

The Justice Department had to ask Howell's permission to view certain emails between a lawyer and clients, who were not identified.

Howell granted the request in August, saying attorney-client privilege did not apply in that instance.

Prosecutors had said they planned to "confront" three unnamed individuals with the communications and finish their investigation.

According to Howell's order, government investigators said they had seized "over fifty digital media devices, including iPhones, iPads, laptops, thumb drives, and computer and external hard drives."

Presidents enjoy wide latitude under the U.S. Constitution in pardoning people convicted of federal crimes. President Donald Trump last week pardoned his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI during the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

That was the first of what is expected to be a string of pardons in Trump's final weeks in the White House.

According to Howell's order, the Justice Department had recently told her it wanted to keep the investigation from becoming public because it detailed "individuals and conduct" that had not yet been charged.

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