(Bloomberg) -- A job at a prestigious law firm with a salary of almost half a million dollars didn’t stop Jeffrey Wertkin from wearing a wig to carry out a criminal scheme that his defense attorney said was like a scene out of a “B grade action movie.”
In the end, what he got out of it was a 2 1/2-year prison sentence.
A one-time U.S. Justice Department lawyer, Wertkin came up with a plan to steal secret whistle-blower lawsuits and then sell the documents to the companies named in them because he believed his $450,000 salary at Washington’s Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP undervalued him, a prosecutor told the judge during a sentencing hearing in San Francisco federal court.
“He wanted a get-rich quick scheme,’’ said Assistant U.S. Attorney Robin Harris. “He was motivated by money and greed.’’
Wertkin’s undoing came in January 2017, when he disguised himself with a wig and sunglasses to pick up a $310,000 payoff from a Silicon Valley company targeted in a whistle-blower case. Instead, he was nabbed by FBI agents who’d set up a sting to lure him to a California hotel.
The suits, known as qui tam complaints, are filed under seal and given to the Justice Department for review. Prosecutors can intervene if they believe a case is worth pursuing. Only judges can unseal the suits and companies often don’t know they’ve been sued until the cases are made public.
After he pleaded guilty, Wertkin admitted to pilfering 40 whistle-blower complaints when he left the government in 2016 in hopes of using them to market his legal skills to companies named in the cases. He also admitted to trying to cover up the theft by implicating a former DOJ colleague.
‘Escape My Problems’
But Wertkin said the demands of succeeding at Akin Gump, coupled with financial pressures to provide a better life for his family, caused him to snap. “I believe I somehow viewed selling the complaints as a way to escape my problems,’’ Wertkin said in a court filing seeking leniency from the judge and a prison term of no more than 13 months.
“He felt he was failing in his professional and personal life,’’ Cris Arguedas, Wertkin’s lawyer, told U.S. District Judge Maxine Chesney. Arguedas, who previously likened Wertkin’s plot in court filings to something out of a low-budget film, said his decisions to steal the complaints and try to cover up his actions were a “departure’’ from an otherwise law-abiding life.
Wertkin, who wiped away tears after Chesney sentenced him Wednesday, told the judge he was “deeply ashamed’’ and vowed to spend his life making amends to those he hurt. About a dozen of Wertkin’s family members and friends were in the courtroom for his sentencing.
His wife suggested in a letter to the judge that instead of prison, her husband could travel around the U.S. telling his sad tale to lawyers and law students. She wrote that he’s a “gifted writer and communicator” who could educate the next generation of lawyers and “deter far more people than whatever sentence he receives.”
Akin Gump officials denied in a victim-impact statement they put undue pressure on the ex-government lawyer to bring in clients during his short tenure with the firm, Chesney said. The judge said the law firm described Wertkin as a “rising star.’’
In that letter to the judge, Akin Gump said Wertkin harmed the firm by trying to sell complaints he stole before he joined its Washington office. “Whatever drove Mr. Wertkin to
his hidden criminal activity, it was not the culture of firm where he worked for nine months,” Douglas Maynard, the firm’s general counsel, wrote.
Wertkin complained in court filings that he was making “one of the lowest salaries” at Akin Gump for partners at his level, Harris said. His pay was about three times more than he made as a $150,000-per year government lawyer, according to court filings.
Wertkin also had real estate holdings in Washington worth more than $1 million and $250,000 in the bank, Harris said. “He could have sold’’ those properties to alleviate money problems, the prosecutor added.
Chesney said Wertkin created his own problems by deciding to leave government service for “the cutthroat world of big-firm litigation.’’
“There’s been an abuse of public trust here and it has to be recognized,’’ Chesney said. “We have to make a statement that these matters must be treated seriously no matter who you are.”
The case is U.S. v. Wertkin, 17-cr-0557, U.S. District Court, District of Northern California (San Francisco).
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.