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Andrew Weissmann, one of Robert Mueller’s top prosecutors in the Russia investigation, is a veteran government prosecutor known for his work on the Enron task force and for going after mob figures in New York.
Regarded by some as a fierce prosecutor known for his strategies of flipping lower-level defendants on bigger targets (and even going after family members), Weissmann is controversial in other circles, both for his campaign donations to Barack Obama and Democrats and for what some regard as overreaching prosecutions sometimes overturned by higher courts, including in the high-profile Enron case.
Scrutiny of Weissmann and other members of Mueller’s team is likely to increase now that CNN is reporting that Mueller has obtained the first criminal charges in the Russia investigation, which President Donald Trump has called a “witch hunt.” On October 27, 2017, CNN reported, “top lawyers who are helping to lead the Mueller probe, including veteran prosecutor Andrew Weissmann, were seen entering the court room at the DC federal court where the grand jury meets to hear testimony in the Russia investigation.”
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Weissmann Served as the FBI’s General Counsel Under Robert Mueller
Mueller and Weissmann go way back. A 2015 press release from the U.S. Department of Justice announced that “Andrew Weissmann has been selected as the Chief of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section.”
“Andrew Weissmann is an extraordinary attorney with an incomparable dedication to the pursuit of justice,” said an assistant attorney general in the press release. “As his deep experience demonstrates, many of the top officials throughout the Department of Justice have come to rely upon his wise counsel over the years, and I am pleased to welcome him back to the Criminal Division.”
The release added that “Weissmann has dedicated the majority of his 30-year professional career to public service and the Department of Justice. He returns to the Criminal Division after serving as the FBI’s general counsel under former Director Robert S. Mueller and, most recently, teaching criminal procedure and national security law courses and seminars at NYU School of Law.”
Weissmann was in private practice before working for the FBI, the press release said. “Before his tenure at the FBI, Weissmann was a partner at Jenner & Block in New York for five years, a member of its Management Committee, and co-chair of the firm’s White Collar Practice Group, where he worked on a broad range of matters including ones involving securities fraud, antitrust, health care fraud and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Prior to joining that law firm, Weissmann served as special counsel to the Director of the FBI.”
2. Weissmann Led the Enron Task Force but Not Without Controversy
Weissmann has been involved in high-profile cases before, most notably, the government’s Enron Task Force. His biography on Bloomberg notes, “As Enron Task Force Director, Mr. Weissmann oversaw the prosecution of more than 30 individuals in connection with the company’s collapse.”
“… He was the deputy director and then the director of the Enron Task Force from 2002 through 2005, where he oversaw the investigations and prosecutions of more than 30 individuals, including Jeffrey Skilling, Kenneth Lay, and Andrew Fastow, as well as the corporate prosecutions of Merrill Lynch and CIBC,” the DOJ press release said.
Not everyone is a Weissmann fan. Sidney Powell, a federal prosecutor who is past president of the American Academy of Appellate Lawyers, wrote an opinion piece in the Hill that said, in part, that Weissmann “is not just a ‘tough’ prosecutor. Time after time, courts have reversed Weissmann’s most touted ‘victories’ for his tactics. This is hardly the stuff of a hero in the law. Weissmann, as deputy and later director of the Enron Task Force, destroyed the venerable accounting firm of Arthur Andersen LLP and its 85,000 jobs worldwide — only to be reversed several years later by a unanimous Supreme Court.”
The Hill noted that Powell had “published Licensed to Lie: Exposing Corruption in the Department of Justice. She consulted with Arthur Andersen on appeal and represented one of the Merrill Executives.” Powell added, “Next, Weissmann creatively criminalized a business transaction between Merrill Lynch and Enron. Four Merrill executives went to prison for as long as a year. Weissmann’s team made sure they did not even get bail pending their appeals, even though the charges Weissmann concocted, like those against Andersen, were literally unprecedented. Weissmann’s prosecution devastated the lives and families of the Merrill executives, causing enormous defense costs, unimaginable stress and torturous prison time. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the mass of the case.”
She noted that he had “quietly resigned from the Enron Task Force just as the judge in the Enron Broadband prosecution began excoriating Weissmann’s team and the press began catching on to Weissmann’s modus operandi.” The Blog, Houston’s Clear Thinkers, wrote, “How did this trial veer so far out of control for the prosecution? Well, to begin, the Task Force’s decision to throw 164 charges of mud at the five defendants to see what would stick turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. The jurors could not reconcile the voluminous allegations of wrongdoing with what they heard over three months of often idiosyncratic testimony.”
However, Pacific Standard Magazine disagrees that the Enron prosecution was a bust and, in fact, argues that it could provide a template for Mueller now. “The Enron team was patient and learned from its investigative and trial mistakes. After its yearslong run, it set a high-water mark for complex, high-profile financial inquiries, successfully indicting and imprisoning almost all of the company’s top executives,” the magazine reported. “Early on, the Enron team also won a jury conviction of the Arthur Andersen accounting firm, Enron’s auditor, on an obstruction-of-justice charge. That experience could prove valuable as the Russia team investigates.”
The team’s strategy in Enron involved flipping targets by even charging family members. “The Enron team made aggressive and risky moves. For example, it shocked Houston high society by charging the wife of Andrew Fastow, the chief financial officer, with tax evasion to put pressure on him. It worked. Fastow began to cooperate with the government,” the magazine reported.
However, the magazine also noted the higher court reversals, including in the prosecution of Jeffrey Skilling, Enron CEO. “The government won at trial in 2002, but the Supreme Court overturned the verdict three years later on a narrow issue involving jury instructions. Despite its successes, the Enron Task Force emerged with a mixed legacy thanks to its trial losses and reversals from higher courts. Among them, the Supreme Court reversed part of the Skilling verdict,” reported the magazine. “Today, many Department of Justice officials have learned the wrong lessons from the Enron experience, accepting the idea that the task force was overzealous. Even Democratic appointees… came to believe the prosecution of Andersen had been a mistake.”
According to CNBC, “Skilling’s original sentence was overturned by the Fifth Circuit back in January 2009. The resentencing was delayed by ongoing litigation between federal prosecutors and Skilling lawyers. In 2010, the Supreme Court held that Skilling did not violate a federal law making it a crime to deprive another person of “honest services.” The justices, however, declined to overturn Skilling’s conviction and a federal appeals court later ruled that the conviction would stand.”
3. Weissmann Donated Money to President Barack Obama
Weissmann is a Barack Obama and Democratic campaign donor, according to federal records. “Weissmann, who led the Enron investigation, previously gave $2,300 to Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2008 and $2,000 to the Democratic National Committee in 2006, the same year Democrats won control of Congress. FEC records do not show any donations by Weissman in the 2016 election cycle,” CNN confirmed.
Here are the Obama-related donations on the FEC website:
According to Politico, “Former Obama DOJ spokeswoman Emily Pierce” praised Weissman’s selection by Mueller, calling him an “inspired choice” because “as a fraud and foreign bribery expert, he knows how to follow the money. Who knows what they will find, but if there is something to be found, he will find it.”
Since being named as special prosecutor in May, Robert Mueller has assembled a team of veteran prosecutors. Weissmann is only one of them. You can see a list of the lawyers here. They include mostly lawyers with backgrounds in the Justice Department, Solicitor General’s Office, and east coast U.S. Attorney’s offices.
However, some of them have made campaign contributions to Democratic causes in the past, including Hillary Clinton, raising controversy. The Los Angeles Times reported that “at least seven of the 15 lawyers have previously given money to Democrats.”
In June, CNN reported that “three members of the legal team known to have been hired so far by special counsel Robert Mueller to handle the Russia investigation have given political donations almost exclusively to Democrats,” naming Jeannie Rhee, James Quarles, and Andrew Weissmann. That was before most of the lawyers on the team were identified, however. According to CNN, “two of the lawyers gave the maximum $2,700 donation to Hillary Clinton last year.”
Fox News reported in July: “Of the 15 attorneys currently on staff for Mueller, at least seven have donated to Democratic candidates and campaigns, including Trump’s 2016 rival Hillary Clinton. The rest have not made political donations, according to federal records.” In addition to the attorneys already named by CNN, Fox News listed Andrew Goldstein, Elizabeth Prelogar, Brandon Van Grack, and Rush Atkinson.
4. Weissmann Attended Princeton & Columbia Universities & Prosecuted Mafia Crime Families
According to the DOJ press release, Weissmann “began his career with the Department of Justice in 1991 at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of New York, where he served in various leadership positions, including as chief of the Criminal Division, until joining the Enron Task Force. While at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Weissmann tried more than 25 cases and was instrumental in bringing to justice high-ranking members of the Genovese, Colombo and Gambino crime families and combating the infiltration of organized crime on Wall Street.”
During his tenure with the Department of Justice, the release noted, “Weissmann received many honors, including the Attorney General’s Award for Exceptional Service in 2006, Director’s Awards for Superior Performance in 1994, 1996, 1999 and 2000, and Special Achievement Awards in 2003 and 2004. Weissmann joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office after working as an associate at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP.”
Weissman also served as a law clerk for the Hon. Eugene H. Nickerson in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. He graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University, was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to study at the University of Geneva, and graduated from Columbia Law School, where he served on its law review. Weissmann has also taught at Fordham Law School and Brooklyn Law School.
According to Mother Jones, one of the people Weissmann prosecuted had ties to Trump. “As a prosecutor in the Eastern District, Weissmann signed a 1998 cooperation agreement between the US government and Felix Sater, a violent felon and securities trader who had pleaded guilty to financial crimes. Sater went on to become a confidential informant for the FBI and a Trump business partner,” the magazine noted.
While at Jenner and Block law firm in New York, Weissmann, “built a reputation for representing corporations suing banks over frozen auction-rate securities during the economic downturn. In June the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed a lower court’s confirmation of a record $431 million award that Weissmann won for client STMicroelectronics in a securities arbitration against Credit Suisse before the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority,” reported AMLawDaily in 2011. Weissman was 53-years-old at that time.
5. Some Conservatives Have Noted That Weissmann Was in a Position of Power During the Clinton Uranium Controversy
Some conservatives contend that Mueller has a conflict of interest because they argue the FBI, under his stewardship, should have more thoroughly investigated Bill and Hillary Clinton over a uranium deal known as Uranium One. National Review notes that Andrew Weissmann ran Obama DOJ’s Fraud Section during this time frame.
“The administration green-lighted the transfer of control over one-fifth of American uranium-mining capacity to Russia, a hostile regime — and specifically to Russia’s state-controlled nuclear-energy conglomerate, Rosatom,” National Review alleges. “Worse, at the time the administration approved the transfer, it knew that Rosatom’s American subsidiary was engaged in a lucrative racketeering enterprise that had already committed felony extortion, fraud, and money-laundering offenses.”
The conservative site also noted, “Prosecutors waited four years before quietly pleading the case out for a song, in violation of Justice Department charging guidelines. Meanwhile, the administration stonewalled Congress, reportedly threatening an informant who wanted to go public.”
“The Justice Department lifted a gag order that will allow a former FBI informant speak to congressional panels investigating an Obama-era deal in which a Russian-backed company was able to get control of a significant amount of the United States uranium supply,” reported The New York Post. As the Post explained, “Russian energy giant Rosatom acquired Canadian mining company Uranium One, which has a mine in Wyoming, and then was able to get control of 20 percent of America’s uranium stockpile.” The catch, according to The Post, “News reports in 2015 revealed that former President Bill Clinton was paid $500,000 from a Kremlin-linked bank for a 2010 speech and the Clinton Foundation received millions in charitable donations around the time of the Uranium One deal.”
Fox News explained of conservative objection to Mueller: “Hill investigators also are looking into a Russian firm’s uranium deal that was approved by the Obama administration in 2010 despite reports that the FBI – then led by Mueller – had evidence of bribery involving a subsidiary of that firm.” The Wall Street Journal called for Mueller to step down because the FBI once considered paying the dossier author. The Journal’s point is that Mueller, as a former FBI director, is too closely tied to the FBI to independently investigate its role in the Russian matters.
Notes National Review, “Interestingly, as the plea agreement shows, the Obama DOJ’s Fraud Section was then run by Andrew Weissmann, who is now one of the top prosecutors in Robert Mueller’s ongoing special-counsel investigation of suspected Trump collusion with Russia.”