FBI Lawyer Hoped Justice Department Would ‘Reconsider’ 2021 Memo on Alleged School Board Threats, Documents Reveal

Ryan Morgan
By Ryan Morgan
March 24, 2023Politics
FBI Lawyer Hoped Justice Department Would ‘Reconsider’ 2021 Memo on Alleged School Board Threats, Documents Reveal
Attorney General Merrick Garland (R) and FBI Director Christopher Wray hold a press conference at the Robert F. Kennedy Main Justice Building in Washington on Nov. 8, 2021. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Documents the FBI recently released show that a lawyer for the agency expressed her reservations about a draft version of U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland’s Oct. 4, 2021 memo that initiated a controversial federal effort to investigate alleged harassment at school board meetings around the country.

The documents, which the America First Legal Foundation (AFL) recently obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, showed FBI attorney Miriam Coakley expressed her hope that Garland and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) would reconsider their actions.

“Not sure if you’ve seen this/weighed in—it was just raised to my attention,” Coakley wrote in an Oct. 4, 2021 email to Corey Frazier Ellis. Ellis was serving at the time as chief of staff for FBI Director Christopher Wray before Garland appointed him in December of that year to serve as the Interim U.S. Attorney for the District of South Carolina.

“I hope DOJ reconsiders,” Coakley added in her email.

After Coakley contacted him, Ellis raised the issue to Norman Wong, the then director of the DOJ’s Executive Office for United States Attorneys (EOUSA), writing “we are asking that the memo be revised,” to which Wong replied: “It’s a little too late.”

The DOJ proceeded to publish Garland’s memo that day, along with a larger press statement describing the formation of a task force that would include the FBI and the DOJ’s Criminal, National Security, and Civil Rights Divisions.

2021 Garland Memo Set Off Controversy

At the time, Garland and the DOJ cited “an increase in harassment, intimidation and threats of violence against school board members, teachers and workers” in their decision to launch the new DOJ task force.

The new task force came as parents had been protesting school boards around the country over their COVID-19 policies and the inclusion of critical race theory (CRT) principles in school curricula. On Sept. 29, 2021—just days before Garland’s memo—the National School Boards Association (NSBA) sent a letter (pdf) to President Joe Biden and the DOJ, raising concerns about disruptions to school board meetings and claiming the harassment they were experiencing was akin to domestic terrorism or hate crimes. The NSBA letter called on the DOJ to use its National Security and Counter-terrorism components to investigate these school board incidents and use counter-terrorism laws—like the PATRIOT Act—to prosecute them.

The NSBA letter and Garland’s subsequent decision to form a new task force to investigate disruptions at schools and school board meetings received pushback from Republican officials. A Group of State Attorneys General sent a letter (pdf) disputing the NSBA’s claims and arguing that the DOJ’s subsequent actions could be used as a pretext to chill lawful free speech.

The NSBA went on to retract its letter and said “there was no justification for some of the language included in the letter.” Despite that NSBA retraction, Garland continued to defend his decision to form the new DOJ task force.

“All it asks is for federal law enforcement to consult with, meet with local law enforcement to assess the circumstances, strategize about what may or may not be necessary to provide federal assistance, if it is necessary,” Garland said in response to questions at the time from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). Garland said his memo “alters some of the language in the [NSBA] letter that we did not rely on.”

Garland insisted the DOJ was only seeking to stop violence and threats of violence.

“We are not investigating peaceful protests or parent involvement in school board meetings,” Garland told Grassley and Cornyn in 2021.

NTD News reached out to the FBI and the DOJ regarding the documents AFL obtained. Neither responded before this article was published.

‘No Legitimate Basis,’ GOP Says

This week, the Republican-controlled House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government published a report claiming Garland and the DOJ had “no legitimate basis” for using federal law enforcement resources to investigate incidents involving local school board meetings.

The committee report (pdf) revealed the FBI had initiated 25 “guardian assessments” of school board threats, of which six were run by the FBI’s Counter-Terrorism Division. The Republican report also shared whistleblower allegations that some of the FBI assessments were initiated over claims that included, for example, that a targeted mother belonged to a “right-wing mom’s group” and “is a gun owner,” and that a targeted father “rails against the government.” None of the 25 school board-related investigations have resulted in federal arrests or charges.

“We have known all along that the timeline at issue—a letter to the President followed by an Attorney General memorandum within days—indicated that the underlying premise for the memorandum was as fake as the Biden Administration’s commitment to the equal application of the law,” said America First Legal Vice-President and General Counsel, Gene Hamilton. “The report issued by the House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government and the House Judiciary Committee this week confirms our assertions about the Attorney General’s memorandum. And now, the records we are revealing today further show that the memo blindsided the FBI.”