The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ex-Justice Dept. lawyer offered to sell secret U.S. whistleblower lawsuits to targets of the complaints

Jeffrey Wertkin and defense attorney Cristina C. “Cris” Arguedas outside federal court in San Francisco in November. (Jason Doiy /Jason Doiy / The Recorder)

Jeffrey Wertkin had a plot to bring in business and impress his new partners after joining one of Washington's most influential law firms.

As a former high-stakes corporate-fraud prosecutor with the Department of Justice, he had secretly stockpiled sealed lawsuits brought by whistleblowers. Now, he would sell copies of the suits to the very targets of the pending government investigations — and his services to defend them.

Wertkin carried out his plan for months, right up until the day an FBI agent arrested him in a California hotel lobby.

The 41-year-old partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in the District was caught wearing a wig and fake mustache trying to peddle a sealed federal lawsuit for $310,000 to a Silicon Valley technology company. "My life is over," he told the undercover agent after his arrest at an intended cash drop at the Cupertino hotel.

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How Wertkin morphed from a leading Justice Department fraud litigator to well-paid white-collar defense lawyer to a confessed felon is not fully revealed in court files, and his transformation still confounds several associates who worked with him on federal cases and recalled him as conscientious and dedicated.

His sentencing is scheduled for March in San Francisco.

Wertkin has admitted hawking sealed files he spirited out of the Justice Department's civil-fraud division where he worked for six years until 2016. He walked out, court records state, with files for cases to which he had not been assigned, raising questions about how the department polices its attorneys and the possible damage to investigations aimed at recovering millions of dollars for taxpayers.

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Before his sentencing, Wertkin has promised to meet with Justice Department supervisors to tell them how he managed to steal sensitive documents without being detected. The pledge is part of his plea deal on charges of obstructing justice and transporting stolen property when he took a file from Washington to California for a sale before he was caught last January.

When he gathered up the cases in his last month on the federal job in April 2016, "I knew and understood that doing so was an illegal theft of the complaints and, during my exit process, I intentionally lied to the Department of Justice about taking the complaints with me," Wertkin said in court at his plea hearing.

Exactly how many cases he stole or what he did with all of the information remains murky, but Wertkin was clear in his 10-page plea agreement about why he did it: "I began secretly reviewing and collecting complaints to identify clients to solicit for business when I was in practice and, thereby, to make myself more successful at Akin Gump."

And he did not dally trying to drum up clients after joining the firm in mid-April 2016, court statements show.

Apart from the Sunnyvale-based technology security provider, Wertkin said he tried to sell a second sealed lawsuit last January to a company headquartered in Oregon after first mailing an employee a redacted copy of the cover sheet in the federal case to show he had the real goods to offer. He also said he used information in an undisclosed number of sealed complaints "to improperly solicit" more business, managing in one case to convince a company "to retain my services as an attorney to represent it in its lawsuit."

After his arrest last Jan. 31, Wertkin returned to Washington to clean out his Akin Gump office near Dupont Circle, where he removed and destroyed electronic and paper copies of other stolen cases "that I knew could further incriminate me," he said in plea papers.

Wertkin's defense team, led by Cristina C. "Cris" Arguedas, whose cases have included O.J. Simpson's defense on double-murder charges in 1995, said Wertkin had no comment on the case and referred to the defense lawyers' public statement issued after his plea. That statement said: "Jeff has led a hard-working and honorable life for many years. In a lapse of judgment, he made bad choices. He takes full responsibility and is doing his best to make amends."

No company that Wertkin approached is named in filings in his criminal case, although two lawsuits whose details he tried to sell were described as pending before the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

Spokesmen for the Justice Department and U.S. attorney's office for Northern California said they could not comment beyond court pleadings "in this ongoing litigation."

At the Justice Department, where he started working in December 2010, Wertkin's assignments included cases that often result in multimillion-dollar corporate paybacks to the government after whistleblowers — who can receive part of recovered funds — tip off investigators to fraud in federal services and contracts.

Known as qui tam lawsuits under the False Claims Act, the cases are brought under seal to protect the investigations and the whistleblowers. There were 702 qui tam actions filed in 2016, and the Justice Department recovered $4.7 billion under the law, it reported.

Wertkin "led more than 20 major fraud investigations" at the department, Akin Gump said when it announced his hiring.

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In violating that secrecy, Wertkin may have done "irreparable harm" by scaring off future whistleblowers, said Nola J. Hitchcock Cross, a managing attorney at the Cross Law Firm of Milwaukee, who worked with a whistleblower in one of Wertkin's federal fraud cases.

"Any whistleblowers will not bring fraud to the government's attention through the False Claims Act if they are influenced by Mr. Wertkin's conduct and fear that their identity will not, in fact, remain under seal during the government's investigation," Cross said. "Every time a potential whistleblower hesitates to bring fraud to the government attention, the taxpayers suffer a potential loss, often in the hundreds of millions of dollars."

The Justice Department has not said what damage Wertkin's actions may have caused or how it is assessing his impact. But in responding to a Senate Judiciary Committee inquiry about Wertkin's case after his arrest, then-acting Assistant Attorney General Samuel R. Ramer wrote that the department was not aware of any accusations of misconduct by Wertkin while he worked there and that its Office of Professional Responsibility had no record of any complaints.

Benjamin J. Harris, a spokesman for the Akin Gump firm, said in a statement: "The firm worked to protect its clients' interests throughout this matter. Mr. Wertkin's conduct was reprehensible, and when that conduct was revealed, Mr. Wertkin's position at the firm was immediately terminated. Consistent with its ethical duties, the firm has cooperated with the government's investigation." Akin Gump has more than 900 lawyers worldwide and since 2014 has ranked as Washington's top-earning lobbying firm.

Wertkin, the son of a surgeon and a registered nurse in the affluent New York City suburbs, graduated from Haverford College in 1998 and earned a law degree and a master's degree in government from Georgetown University. He is married with a young son and a daughter.

In 2010, Wertkin left the Patton Boggs law firm to join the Justice Department. During his time at Justice, he also, for three years, taught a seven-week-long class on federal agency rulemaking as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. He bought a condominium in Washington's Dupont Circle neighborhood, which he used to secure his release on $750,000 bond after his arrest.

Several of Wertkin's former Justice Department colleagues did not respond to requests for interviews or said they could not comment on his case or its ramifications.

But people close to him say his crime is an aberrant act.

"On its face, it's a breakdown," said a legal colleague who asked for anonymity to avoid jeopardizing a friendship with Wertkin and his pending sentencing. "It's hard to understand and it's not understandable, because it doesn't fit anything else in his life. He was an unusually straight arrow."

"Wertkin has resigned from the bar," the person said, and is "back to the guy he's always been" and is spending time taking care of his children.

Months before Wertkin left the Justice Department, he was co-counsel in one of the most complex False Claims Act trials in recent history, a potentially groundbreaking and particularly difficult $200 million case against AseraCare, a Texas-based for-profit hospice provider. Government lawyers were stunned when the judge set aside a jury verdict in their favor in a decision that raised new hurdles to future prosecutions.

James F. Barger Jr., a private lawyer from Birmingham, Ala., who represented the whistleblower in the case, called Wertkin "extremely dedicated, one of the hardest-working DOJ lawyers I ever met."

"And the whole time I was with him, which I can't count the number of hours, he displayed great integrity, and he had serious concern for the interests of the United States," Barger said. "Why he did what he did, I don't know."

Wertkin pleaded guilty to two counts of obstructing justice by disclosing the two sealed lawsuits and to one count of interstate transport of stolen property.

The charges carry a statutory maximum of 20 years in prison, but in the plea agreement both sides reached, prosecutors would not seek a prison term of more than 30 to 37 months barring additional discoveries about Wertkin's conduct.

He faces sentencing March 7 before U.S. District Judge Maxine M. Chesney in San Francisco.

Alice Crites contributed to this report

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