Newly appointed special counsel Robert S. Mueller III will undergo a Justice Department ethics review that will examine possible conflicts of interest regarding his former law firm, which represents several figures who could be caught up in the probe into Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election.
Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said Thursday that the agency will conduct a background investigation and detailed review of conflict-of-interest issues, a process outlined in the regulation governing special counsels under which he was appointed.
For the past three years, Mueller has been a partner in the Washington office of WilmerHale, whose attorneys represent former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, Trump’s daughter Ivanka and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law.
Federal regulations prohibit officials from participating in matters involving their former employers for two years after joining the government unless they receive a waiver to do so.
Bruce Berman, WilmerHale’s general counsel, said that Mueller had no involvement in the representation of Manafort, Kushner or Trump, or any client in connection with any Russia-related inquiry. The firm says there are no potential conflicts regarding Mueller’s role as special counsel, Berman said.
Ethics experts said they anticipate that the Justice Department will grant a waiver, noting that Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein would have taken Mueller’s past employer into consideration when selecting him.
“The deputy attorney general’s assumption is that Mr. Mueller has such an extraordinarily impressive reputation that everyone is going to have confidence in him,” said Bruce Green, who directs the Louis Stein Center for Law and Ethics at the Fordham University School of Law.
Still, Green noted, granting such a waiver could later prove politically risky.
“At the end of the day, if he says, ‘I didn’t find anything here,’ are members of the public going to say, ‘We don’t trust that because we think you favored these individuals because they are your former firm’s clients?’ ”
Legal ethics codes also prohibit lawyers from representing a client and then later using information they have learned through that work against the client. If Mueller had taken part in WilmerHale’s representation of clients who are targets of the probe, the rule could have allowed them to argue he should be prohibited from investigating them.
But experts, pointing to the firm’s statements that Mueller had not worked with any of the Trump-related clients, said there were no potential conflicts.
“If Mueller did not work for any of the three clients, then when he leaves the firm, he’s purged of any conflicts the firm has because of that work. He’s sanitized. He’s vaccinated,” said Stephen Gillers, a professor of law at New York University who specializes in legal ethics.
“The public might say, ‘He was at Manafort’s firm, he has a conflict,’ ” Gillers added. “But the rule is, if he didn’t work on the Manafort matter or learn any confidential information, once he leaves it’s as though he was never there.”
Tom Hamburger and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.