Trump-Russia probe: Robert Mueller's dream team has conspiracy experience

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Washington: When one of the United States’ largest accounting firms destroyed thousands of files and emails after the Enron energy giant collapsed in a massive fraud in 2001, federal prosecutors were sure the shredding was a clear case of obstruction of justice.

“This case was really about a simple principle,” Andrew Weissmann, the lead prosecutor on the Arthur Andersen accounting scandal, said at the time. “Which is, when you expect the police, don’t destroy evidence.”



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After the company appealed its conviction, saying prosecutors had bent the law in an overzealous pursuit of a culprit, deputy solicitor general Michael Dreeben told the Supreme Court that the government’s aggressive approach was justified.

“It’s the corporate equivalent of seeing something that looks like a crime scene and sending somebody in before the police can get the yellow tape up, to wipe down the fingerprints,” Dreeben argued.

The court unanimously disagreed in 2005, tossing the conviction out due to improper instruction of the jury. By then, Arthur Andersen had given up its US accounting licences and 85,000 people had lost their jobs.

Dreeben and Weissmann will bring that searing experience to their new jobs working for Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating any links or coordination between US President Donald Trump’s associates and the Russian government – a probe that has expanded to include whether the President sought to obstruct an FBI investigation.

Mueller has made no public comments since he was appointed May 17, but his first 13 hires speak volumes: They include veteran prosecutors who spent years unravelling complicated conspiracies in high-pressure cases. Some legal experts say that may be bad news for the president.

“These are guys that have a particular skill set that seems uncomfortably close to a potential case against Donald Trump,” said Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, who says he is skeptical of the publicly available evidence so far.

“This is a team with prosecutors who have not been timid in stretching the criminal code when it comes to prosecutions,” he added.

Trump, who has repeatedly denied collusion with Moscow or obstruction of justice, on Friday denounced Mueller’s team for what he claimed was partisan bias.

“I can say that the people that have been hired are all Hillary Clinton supporters, some of them worked for Hillary Clinton,” Trump said in an interview on Fox & Friends. “I mean, the whole thing is ridiculous if you want to know the truth.”

He also criticised Mueller’s friendship with James Comey as “very bothersome.” Comey succeeded Mueller as FBI director until Trump fired him May 9, apparently out of anger at the FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Weissmann is trained to find a weak link and break it.


Jonathan Turley, law professor, George Washington University

“Robert Mueller is an honorable man and hopefully he’ll come up with an honorable conclusion,” Trump added on Fox.

After an ethics review, the Justice Department determined that Mueller did not have a conflict of interest.

To staff up, Mueller – who is a registered Republican – first turned to WilmerHale, the Washington-based law firm he joined after leaving the FBI in 2013.

WilmerHale also represents Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, as well as Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, in the Russia probes. Mueller picked two trusted colleagues from the firm: James Quarles and Aaron Zebley, in his first round of hires.

Quarles helped bring down a president in the 1970s as a member of the Watergate special prosecutor’s team investigating Richard Nixon. He later focused his practice on civil litigation.

Zebley, Mueller’s long-time chief of staff at the FBI, is a national security expert. He worked in the Justice Department’s national security division and as an FBI counter-terrorism agent. He also served as an assistant US attorney in Alexandria, Virginia.

A federal grand jury there appears to be part of the FBI investigation. It has issued subpoenas to associates of Michael Flynn, who was ousted in February as Trump’s national security advisor for lying about his Russian contacts.

Mueller also hired Jeannie Rhee, a former deputy assistant attorney-general in the Justice Department, where she advised the Obama White House and other departments on criminal law, executive privilege and national security.

He also brought on Lisa Page, an FBI lawyer who specialises in money laundering and organised crime, and Elizabeth Prelogar, a former Supreme Court clerk who speaks Russian. She joined Mueller from the Solicitor General’s office.

Peter Carr, Mueller’s spokesman, said additional hires were in the pipeline. None of the lawyers hired so far were giving interviews.

Despite Trump’s complaints of political bias, only a handful of the group are known to have contributed to Democrats.

Mueller is a long-time Republican. President George W Bush appointed him as FBI director a week before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Obama asked him to stay in the post for two years beyond the normal 10-year term.

Four members of Mueller’s team – Quarles, Weissmann, Rhee and Prelogar – have given a total of about $US50,000 ($66,000) to Democrats since 1990, campaign finance records show. Rhee also has done legal work for the Clinton Foundation, a non-profit organisation that operates as a worldwide charity. Other known members of the team do not appear in campaign finance reports.

Quarles gave the most – more than $US34,000, including the maximum of $US2700 to Clinton’s presidential campaign last year. He mostly backed Democrats, but he gave $US2500 to Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz, and $US250 to former Virginia Republican George Allen.

Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney-general who appointed Mueller, told Congress on June 13 that he didn’t think campaign contributions by lawyers on the team amounted to an ethical conflict.

Richard Davis, who worked on the Watergate task force, said Nixon and his aides levelled the same charges of bias against prosecutors during the Watergate scandal.

“People are going to yell and scream and it’s going to be this and that in terms of publicity,” he said. “We tended to get used to it and to some extent ignore it.”

As a deputy solicitor-general, Dreeben has argued more than 100 cases before the Supreme Court, mostly on questions of criminal law. His knowledge of federal statutes will be invaluable as Mueller considers what conduct might justify filing criminal charges, legal experts say.

“Literally I’ve seen him give an argument to the Supreme Court without a single note. He does it routinely,” said Paul Rosenzweig, a lawyer who served as a deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security.

“You and I read those cases and try to interpret them from a cold record. Dreeben litigated all of them,” Rosenzweig said. “That’s the difference between watching the movie, and acting in it. It’s like having a good criminal law encyclopedia.”

Weissmann is expected to play a key management role on Mueller’s team. They worked together at the FBI for several years, where Weissmann served as special counsel and later as general counsel.

In 2015, Weissmann was named head of the criminal fraud division. He oversaw high-profile FBI probes into Volkswagen over diesel-cheating, global banks over market manipulation and Brazil’s state-owned oil company Petrobras over corrupt payments.

He also launched a pilot program that offered incentives for companies to self-report possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits bribing foreign officials. Several years earlier, during a stint in private practice, he cited corruption in Russia as he argued for rewriting federal standards.

“The statute should take into account the realities that confront businesses that operate in countries with endemic corruption (eg Russia, which is consistently ranked by Transparency International as among the most corrupt in the world),” he wrote in prepared testimony for a Senate subcommittee in 2010.

Weissmann cut his teeth as a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn in the 1990s, where he tried more than two dozen cases that systematically took apart the leadership of New York’s powerful Mafia families.

Among them: Vincent “The Chin” Gigante, accused boss of the Genovese crime family, who wandered streets in a bathrobe and whose lawyers claimed he was mentally unfit to stand trial. Weissmann convinced a judge that Gigante was faking; he was convicted in 1997 and died in prison.

Samuel Buell, who worked on the Enron task force with Weissmann, said he typifies the relentless, hard-core prosecutors bred in the US attorney’s offices in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

“It’s not swagger,” said Buell, now a law professor at Duke University. “It’s a confidence that after six or eight or 10 years, ‘I’m not going to see a problem I can’t handle. There’s no case that’s going to be over my head.'”

Buell said Mueller’s first hires should not be viewed as a road map for where he will take his investigation. He said Mueller appears focused on hiring talented lawyers whom he knows and trusts.

Still, the hires suggest a legal strategy that was key to prosecutions of the Enron fraud and the mob families in New York. In both cases, convictions depended in large part on witnesses who agreed to testify to escape long prison terms.

No one has been charged in the Russia case. But lower-level figures ultimately may face pressure to cooperate with Mueller’s team, especially if it will lead to higher-ups.

“You don’t get all dressed up for some special counsel party and just come out of it with a well-thumbed report,” said Turley. “Weissmann is trained to find a weak link and break it.”

Dan Cogdell, a Houston defense lawyer who had a cooperating client in the Enron case, said Weissmann may be the most aggressive prosecutor he ever faced in a white-collar criminal case.

“Once he believes he understands the facts, he is very difficult to move either way,” said Cogdell. “He’s very self-righteous in his belief system.”

“He is Trump’s worst nightmare if we believe that Trump, or anyone else, has done anything wrong,” he said. “He’s the very last guy you want coming at you.”

Tribune



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