Lawyer in Wig Who Peddled Secret U.S. Suit to Plead Guilty

(Bloomberg) -- A Washington lawyer from a prominent firm will plead guilty after being charged with trying to sell copies of two secret lawsuits involving companies that were under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, his lawyer said.

Jeffrey Wertkin, who worked for Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, was arrested in January in the lobby of a hotel in Cupertino, California, where he allegedly showed up wearing a wig to collect $310,000 for one of the lawsuits and was met by an FBI agent. He took the suits with him when he left the government in 2016, according to court filings.

“Jeff led a good and honorable life for many years,” Cris Arguedas, his lawyer, said in an email. “In a lapse of judgment he made some serious mistakes. He is doing his best now to make amends.”

Wertkin was charged with obstruction of justice and interstate transportation of stolen goods. Arguedas didn’t specify the charges to which he will plead guilty, saying only that he plans to enter a plea this month.

Before joining Akin Gump, Wertkin had worked as a trial attorney within the Justice Department’s False Claims unit, which is where prosecutors said he removed copies of two sealed corporate fraud suits. He “led more than 20 major fraud investigations” while at the Justice Department, but wasn’t assigned to the False Claims Act complaints that he took without permission, according to court records.

False Claims

The case highlights the unusual process involving lawsuits under the False Claims Act, which allows whistle-blowers to sue companies on behalf of the U.S. government. The lawsuits, known as qui tam complaints, are filed under court seal and given to the Justice Department. They typically claim a company’s executives have cheated taxpayers.

Investigators found Wertkin “removed copies of lawsuits #1 and #2, along with other qui tam complaints without permission and for his own personal use,” prosecutors said in the Nov. 1 filing.

Abraham Simmons, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Francisco, didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment.

The U.S. may investigate for months or years before deciding whether to join the suit and notify the company of the allegations. Whistle-blowers can share in any recovery, and some have collected tens of millions of dollars.

Advance Peek

Wertkin is accused of offering to give companies an advance peek at the sealed case -- along with the name of the internal whistle blower -- in exchange for payoffs. The FBI launched an investigation of the Justice Department’s civil division in the wake of Wertkin’s arrest, Bloomberg News reported in February.

After Wertkin’s arrest that month, Republican Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa sent a letter to the Justice Department asking whether the former prosecutor had been accused of misconduct while working for the government. DeLisa Lay, one of Grassley’s staffers assigned to the Wertkin case, didn’t immediately return a call after regular business hours for comment on the government’s response to the senator’s letter.

After leaving the government, Wertkin is accused of calling employees at the targeted companies -- one in Cupertino and the other in Oregon. Identifying himself as Dan, he offered to provide the complaints for a fee, according to a revised indictment released on Wednesday. The companies aren’t identified in court filings.

The Cupertino employee notified the FBI and agreed to record calls with Dan. Eventually a meeting in a hotel was arranged so that Dan could be paid for the secret lawsuit. That’s when he was arrested by FBI agents. “My life is over,” Wertkin told the agents who arrested him.

Akin Gump said it was shocked and troubled when it learned of the charges against Wertkin. The firm said it took “swift action” and that he was no longer employed there.

The case is U.S. v. Wertkin, 17-00557, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco).

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