By Jef Feeley, David Voreacos and Joel Rosenblatt, Bloomberg News
A Washington lawyer at a prominent firm was arrested in a disguise while trying to sell a copy of a secret lawsuit involving a company that was under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department.
Jeffrey Wertkin was picked up Jan. 31 in the lobby of a hotel in Cupertino, California, where he believed he was about to collect $310,000 for selling the lawsuit, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Wertkin, who worked in Washington for Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, believed he would hand a copy of a complaint to an employee of the company, which was accused in the complaint by a whistle-blower of falsely billing the government.
Wertkin, who was wearing a wig and went by the name of Dan, was met instead by an FBI agent, according to arrest documents unsealed on Feb. 6.
“My life is over,” Wertkin told the agent.
The arrest 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, which are filed under court seal and given to the Justice Department, typically claim a company cheated taxpayers.
The U.S. may investigate for months or years before notifying the company of the claims. Whistle-blowers can share in any recovery, and some have collected tens of millions of dollars.
“We are shocked and deeply troubled by the conduct alleged in the charges filed against Mr. Wertkin,” an Akin Gump spokesman said in an e-mailed statement. “Honesty and integrity are at the core of our values and our client relationships.
Immediately upon learning of these charges, we took swift action and Mr. Wertkin is no longer with the firm.”
It wasn’t clear how Wertkin obtained the False Claims Act complaint. He was charged with contempt of court and obstruction of justice.
He joined the firm as a partner in April 2016 after working as a trial attorney at the Justice Department, where he “led more than 20 major fraud investigations,” including false claims cases, according to the FBI, which cited his law firm biography.
Wertkin, who appeared in San Francisco federal court Feb. 1, was released on $750,000 bail. Julia Jayne, his lawyer, didn’t immediately respond to a phone call after regular business hours Tuesday seeking comment on the case.
Abraham Simmons, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Francisco, didn’t immediately respond to phone and e-mail messages after regular business hours.
The case began with an employee at an unidentified technology security company in Sunnyvale, California, getting a voice mail on Nov. 30. The caller left a phone number and said a sealed False Claims Act lawsuit had been filed against the company, according to the FBI.
When the employee dialed the number, the caller identified himself as Dan and said he could provide a copy of the complaint for a “consulting fee,” the FBI said. He mailed a redacted copy of the cover page to the employee, who notified the FBI. The agency verified that the case has been pending since January 2016.
The employee agreed to secretly record calls to Dan for the FBI. On Dec. 22, Dan said he would provide the full complaint for $300,000, the FBI said. Two weeks later, Dan suggested he get paid in untraceable bitcoins, and said buying the complaint would help the company “get out ahead of the investigation.”
On Jan. 19, Dan outlined to the employee his plan to meet on Jan. 31 near Sunnyvale, boosting his price to $310,000. Five days later, the employee said a colleague named Bill would meet him with the money in a hotel lobby. Dan wanted Bill’s cell phone number to text the location. That proved his undoing.
Bill turned out to be FBI agent William Scanlon. As he had agreed, Scanlon wore a gray Titleist hat and carried a blue duffel bag into the lobby of the Hilton Garden Inn.
“Approximately 10 seconds after I sat down, a male approached me and held a copy of the complaint out and handed it to me,” Scanlon wrote in the complaint. “At that point he was immediately arrested by FBI agents who were present in the hotel lobby.”
The case is U.S. v. Wertkin, 17-70131, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco).
For more news, visit Bloomberg.