Doug Emhoff, whose wife, Kamala D. Harris, is to set to become the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, is taking a leave of absence from his law firm, where he has worked for an array of powerful clients, including those his boss described as “some of the biggest names in Hollywood.”
If Emhoff returns to his job, that description would raise questions about whether any of his work would conflict with federal policy that could be influenced by Harris if she is elected vice president. Emhoff’s leave was announced by the firm.
Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University who specializes in ethics, said after reviewing Emhoff’s credentials on the DLA Piper website that he would need to be careful to ensure that he doesn’t put himself in a position where clients may try to influence Harris by hiring him.
“What you don’t want is for DLA Piper to become the law firm version of the Trump hotel in D.C., where people go and pay tribute,” Clark said. A spokesman for the firm did not return a call seeking comment.
Unlike other federal officials who are directly subject to a criminal prohibition on financial conflicts, the president and vice president are exempt, Clark said.
Nonetheless, if Harris is elected vice president, she could be subject to questions about whether her husband was receiving benefits from foreign governments, just as Trump has been the subject of lawsuits based on the Constitution’s emoluments clause on grounds that his company has profited due to his position as president.
In addition, Clark said, the public may become concerned if Harris became involved in federal matters that her husband had worked on as a lawyer or from which he would derive financial benefit.
“You don’t want federal officials exercising discretion in a way to benefit the vice president’s spouse or his clients,” Clark said.
Don Fox, who served as general counsel and acting director of the Office of Government Ethics during the Obama administration, noted that federal law does not require Emhoff to disclose his clients. By comparison, an individual who has been nominated for a federal position would have to disclose clients who paid at least $5,000, he said.
“I’m sure it never occurred to drafters of that law in 1978 that a partner in a major international law firm would be the spouse of a president or vice president,” Fox said. “It is probably worth Congress taking another look” at the law.
Harris, in introducing herself last week as Joe Biden’s running mate, said she “cannot wait for America to get know my husband, Doug.” The two met on a blind date set up by one of Harris’s close friends and married in 2014, when Harris was California’s attorney general. She was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2016.
The Biden-Harris campaign declined to comment, including about whether Emhoff would leave the firm if Harris is elected. The campaign did not make Emhoff available for an interview.
In an example of how a spouse’s work can reflect on a candidate, the Associated Press reported last year that Emhoff headlined a fundraiser for Harris’s campaign that was hosted by partners of a firm she had criticized on the same day for its handling of the Jeffrey Epstein case. Epstein was accused of molesting underage girls and pleaded guilty in 2008 in Florida to state charges of soliciting prostitution. Epstein killed himself last year while in federal custody in New York, authorities say.
Throughout the Trump presidency, critics have raised questions about whether his company or one that had been run by his son-in-law Jared Kushner have benefited from the administration’s decisions. The White House has said such questions are unwarranted, but Trump has declined to release his tax returns.
Harris released her tax returns during her presidential bid last year. They showed that she and husband had earned about $1.9 million in 2018.
Some of Emhoff’s work remains private because the parties reached a settlement, and he also serves as a strategic adviser to companies and individuals.
In what may be his most-publicized case, Emhoff represented Taco Bell’s former advertising agency regarding the origin of a campaign that involved using a Chihuahua to market the fast-food chain’s products. The advertising agency was initially subject to a $42 million judgment against it, but Emhoff successfully argued that the penalty should be paid by Taco Bell.
In describing Emhoff’s work, his law firm listed cases without providing the names of clients. They included defending a “global retailer” in a class-action suit related to the collection of consumers’ personal information; representing a “global manufacturer of workplace products” regarding trademark infringement; and defending a studio executive in a breach of contract related to a “blockbuster film.”
Emhoff told the Hollywood Reporter last year that his legal career took off after he began representing clients in the entertainment industry, including Hollywood Video and dozens of production companies. He co-founded a firm in Beverly Hills in 2000 that eventually was bought by the law firm Venable in 2007. He left that firm three years ago to join DLA Piper, where he is a partner specializing in intellectual property, technology, media, sports and entertainment.
When Emhoff joined DLA Piper, the firm’s global co-chairman, Roger Meltzer said, without providing specifics, that “Doug has served as litigation counsel and trusted advisor for some of the biggest names in Hollywood and across the entertainment, media and sports spectrum.”
In a 2011 interview with Law360, Emhoff said the most challenging lawsuit he had worked on involved representing investors “who were conned out of millions of dollars by a now-convicted felon.” He filed suit against a bank for allowing money to be transferred overseas without approval. He called that “a classic example of David versus Goliath” that ultimately was settled.
Asked to describe his worst mistake, Emhoff recounted that he once said his opposing counsel was a liar, leading the judge to criticize him in open court.
In a lesson that could be applicable during his wife’s campaign, he said, “I realized then that you don’t lose your cool, ever, and just file away the information to be used at the appropriate time, in an appropriate manner.”
Alice Crites and Michelle Ye Hee Lee contributed to this report.