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Joe Biden hugs Hunter and Jill Biden after he was sworn in as president. Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

Hunter Biden hired a new attorney to assist with his federal criminal defense a month before his father became president. On Inauguration Day, one of that lawyer’s close colleagues was tapped to temporarily lead the Justice Department’s criminal division.

Why it matters: The moves put the new DOJ official atop a powerful arm of the justice system as his former colleague represents a client fending off a criminal probe. While their connection will fuel scrutiny of a politically charged matter, ethics experts say strictly adhering to conflict-of-interest rules can address any legitimate concerns.

What’s happening: In December, Hunter Biden hired former federal prosecutor Chris Clark, a partner at the firm Latham & Watkins. The president's younger son is said to be under investigation for possible tax and money laundering activities, with a potential counterintelligence component.

McQuaid, a former federal prosecutor, was tapped in January to serve as principal deputy assistant attorney general in the criminal division. Additionally, he was installed as the acting assistant attorney general to replace a Trump appointee, making McQuaid one of a handful of acting AAGs appointed on Biden’s first day in office.

  • The president has yet to announce a nominee to permanently fill the post.

It’s not clear whether or to what extent the main branch of the Justice Department is involved in the Hunter Biden investigation.

  • While the investigation is being run by the U.S. attorney’s office in Delaware, that doesn’t necessarily preclude involvement by Justice Department sections in Washington.
  • “It can really be quite ad hoc in the level of interactivity," said John A. Horn, a former U.S. attorney in Georgia. Any engagement is “very much dependent on the facts and circumstances of each case.”

Between the lines: Federal ethics laws and DOJ regulations would bar McQuaid from working on matters relating to the Biden investigation without a sign-off from Justice ethics officials.

  • DOJ guidelines, as well as an ethics pledge imposed by President Biden within days of taking office, bar federal officials from participating in matters involving former employers unless they receive a waiver of relevant laws and regulations.
  • “Potential conflicts between lawyers entering government and their former clients or firms are quite common,” said Kedric Payne, the senior director for ethics at the Campaign Legal Center.
  • “This situation is one of the many initial tests of Biden's ethics pledge, which looks great on paper, but time will tell if it is effective in practice,” he added. “Enforcement is essential.”

The bottom line: “While not speaking to any particular matter,” a DOJ spokesperson told Axios, “all department employees are governed by the department’s ethics rules, including rules concerning recusal.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include that National Law Journal first reported McQuaid’s hiring.

Go deeper

13 mins ago - Sports

Raiders player becomes first active in NFL to come out as gay

Photo: Julio Aguilar via Getty Images

Las Vegas Raiders player Carl Nassib becomes the first active NFL player in history to come out as gay on Monday.

Why it matters: The NFL has "plenty of" members of the LGTBQ community, but the vast majority are closeted due to fear that their identity will negatively impact their career, former NFL player Ryan O'Callaghan told Reuters in 2019.

Airlines, unions want DOJ to prosecute unruly passengers

Photo: Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images

A coalition of airline industry partners asked the Justice Department on Monday to begin prosecuting disruptive passengers.

Why it matters: Increased political divisions and conflict over pandemic guidelines have led the Federal Aviation Administration to take some form of enforcement action over 400 times in the first five months of 2021, compared to 146 in all of 2019, according to the coalition.