Peter Strzok, the top FBI official who was fired for sending texts critical of President Trump, challenged that termination with a lawsuit filed Tuesday against Attorney General Bill Barr and FBI Director Chris Wray.
Strzok alleges that the decision to fire him — which came after an agreement he made with the FBI’s disciplinary office that would have allowed him to stay at the bureau — violated his due process rights and his right to political speech.
Under the deal he had accepted from the Office of Professional Responsibility, he would be demoted and put on a 60-day suspension, in exchange for him agreeing not to appeal the move, according to the lawsuit.
A day after the disciplinary office’s decision — and allegedly under the pressure of President Trump and his allies —Deputy Director David Bowdich overruled the deal and terminated Strzok, according to the lawsuit. Strzok was also not able to appeal Bowdich’s decision, which is normally allowed under FBI protocol for disciplinary moves, the lawsuit said.
“But for the intervention of the President and his political allies and their insistence on punishing Special Agent Strzok for the content of his protected speech, the FBI would have imposed the lesser discipline decided upon by Assistant Director [Candice] Will [of the Office of Professional Responsibility], and Strzok would not have been discharged,” the lawsuit said. “Defendants discharged Strzok because of his protected speech in violation of the First Amendment.”
The lawsuit also alleged that the Justice Department violated the Privacy Act by leaking Strzok’s anti-Trump texts to the media.
Strzok — a top counter-intelligence official at the FBI before his ouster — was a major target of Trump and his supporters as they tried to undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. Strzok helped lead the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and was also assigned to the Russia probe. He was removed from Mueller’s team in summer 2017, after an inspector general review of the Clinton probe uncovered the anti-Trump texts he exchanged with a FBI lawyer, with whom Strzok was having a romantic affair.
The lawsuit noted that the inspector general found no evidence that “political bias … directly affected the specific investigative decisions” it reviewed in the Clinton probe. The lawsuit also stressed political speech by government employees is protected by law, including under the Hatch Act, and that Strzok has never been accused of violating the Hatch Act, which restricts the kinds of political speech government employees can engage in while acting in a official capacity.
“The Trump Administration has consistently tolerated and even encouraged partisan political speech by federal employees, as long as this speech praises President Trump and attacks his political adversaries,” the lawsuit said. It pointed specifically to Kellyanne Conway the White House adviser whose Hatch Act violations have become so egregious ethics officials have unsuccessfully recommended her termination.
The lawsuit said the treatment towards Strzok amounts to viewpoint discrimination, particularly compared to the treatment towards Conway and even the FBI officials who purportedly leaked information from the Clinton probe.
“This viewpoint discrimination is part of a broader campaign against the very principle of free speech underlying the First Amendment, initiated and led by a President who has repeatedly attacked the press as the ‘enemy of the people,’ urged censorship of opinions that he deems insufficiently flattering and the withdrawal of security clearance of critics (including Special Agent Strzok) who present no risk to national security,” the lawsuit said.
Read the complaint below: