How a longtime personal-injury lawyer found himself at the center of that trial, which opened Tuesday, may say more about his client than his own legal career. Trump struggled to find lawyers to take on his case, parting ways with several who were unwilling to claim that the 2020 election was stolen, as the president is said to have wanted them to do.
Van der Veen’s route to Trump’s legal team began when the firm he founded — van der Veen, O’Neill, Hartshorn and Levin — hired Bruce Castor in December. Castor, a former prosecutor from suburban Philadelphia, in turn was recommended to Trump aides and hired last month.
Now, van der Veen’s name and signature appear in Trump’s impeachment filings alongside Castor’s, as well as those of David Schoen, an Atlanta-based lawyer Trump brought on last week. In a 78-page defense brief filed Monday, the lawyers argued that Trump was entitled to express his belief that “voting irregularities” he attributed to illegal changes to election laws had tainted the election.
Van der Veen did not respond to repeated requests for comment made through his law firm.
It has been just a few months since his name was on a very different legal document — a lawsuit against Trump, the U.S. Postal Service and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy filed in federal court in August on behalf of Melvin Johnakin, an independent candidate who last year unsuccessfully sought to challenge Rep. Dwight Evans (D-Pa.). Johnakin claimed in the suit that operational changes at the federal agency would make it harder for voters to cast ballots during the coronavirus pandemic, part of a wave of litigation against the Postal Service last year.
On his website, van der Veen touted the action thusly: “To exercise the fundamental right to vote, many voters have and will utilize all available means to vote by mail rather than in person at a polling place. Advanced planning and proactive measures will be necessary to ensure that voters have sufficient access to vote by mail to preserve and protect the essential right to vote and prevent large-scale disenfranchisement.”
The suit described DeJoy as a “Republican Party and Trump campaign megadonor” and accused the Postal Service of “reducing staff hours, prohibiting overtime, removing hundreds of high-volume mail-processing machines from facilities across the country and removing mail boxes in urban areas with high concentrations of minority, low income and Democratic voters.”
Those operational changes “led to delays in the delivery of mail,” the suit said — and came at a time when Trump was making “repeated claims” without evidence that voting by mail is “ripe with fraud.”
The suit was settled in late November, part of a broader effort in 19 states and D.C. to block the Postal Service from making changes that could delay the mail.
Trump and his legal team at the time were attacking accommodations that state officials had made to help voters cast ballots amid the health crisis, falsely asserting that those changes led to widespread fraud.
On Nov. 25, the day the suit was dismissed, Trump spoke by telephone to a panel of Pennsylvania state senators who had assembled to examine allegations of fraud. He said he had “won by a lot” — and lamented that “all we need is to have some judge listen to it properly without having a political opinion or having another kind of a problem.”
There is no prohibition against a lawyer representing a former adversary in a new matter when the previous client has no interest, said Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University, who noted that the practice is common.
In Philadelphia, van der Veen is best known for his law firm’s ubiquitous ads on local news radio station KYW-AM, which are reminiscent of East Coast electronics chain Crazy Eddie’s high-octane TV pitches from the 1980s.
“Whether you’re walking down Chestnut or Market, Frankurt or Aramingo, be careful and watch your step,” the announcer nearly shouts in one of van der Veen’s radio spots. “But if the walkway isn’t clear, and you fall and get hurt due to snow and ice, call 215-546-1000 for van der Veen, O’Neill, Hartshorn and Levin — trial lawyers excelling in the area of the law most critical to your family.”
“The ‘V,’ ” the announcer concludes, ‘is for ‘Victory.’ ”
The law firm’s website offers personal-injury representation as well as “relentless, savvy defense” work for those accused of corporate embezzlement, Internet-based offenses or violent crime. And it claims massive results, including a $31.5 million judgment for a man paralyzed in a motorcycle accident and a $10 million settlement for a 9-year-old boy struck by a tractor-trailer.
Van der Veen is active in local and state trial lawyers’ associations; last year, he donated $5,000 to the state group’s political action committee, according to Pennsylvania campaign finance reports.
During the first two years of Trump’s presidency, van der Veen donated to prominent Pennsylvania Democrats, including Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., one of the former president’s most vocal critics in the chamber. A spokesman for Casey’s office declined to comment on van der Veen’s representation of Trump.
Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.), who has received several political donations from van der Veen in recent years, said in an interview that she wondered whether Trump realizes he hired someone who recently went up against him in court.
“Given the former president’s enemies list, he would likely not be happy to learn he’d been sued by his current lawyer, since he generally demands total loyalty,” said Scanlon, who is also a lawyer. “It does seem a little out of character for the former president to embrace someone who so recently sued him.”
A spokesman for Trump did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Van der Veen drew local media attention in 2018 for the elaborate renovation of his small firm’s offices in Philadelphia’s Center City neighborhood. The 25-employee firm occupies a 19th-century rowhouse featuring a Delftware fireplace and ornate mantel carvings of Zeus and Apollo. The customized furniture he bought from Maine-based Thos. Moser was built from cherrywood harvested from family farms in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Plateau — “so there’s no clear cutting involved,” according to a write-up in the Philadelphia Business Journal.
For some in Pennsylvania, van der Veen’s representation of Trump is a natural fit, given his career path as a personal-injury lawyer who broadcasts ads on local talk radio and touts glowing magazine cover stories on his law firm’s website.
“It probably speaks more to the gadfly culture of Philadelphia trial attorneys than anything else,” said one Democratic strategist from Pennsylvania who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly. “It’s a showman’s culture.”