U.S. News

Lawyer who stole U.S. whistleblower lawsuits receives prison term

(Reuters) - A former partner at a major U.S. law firm who admitted to trying to sell stolen copies of sealed whistleblower lawsuits against corporations he obtained while working at the Justice Department was sentenced on Wednesday to 30 months in prison.

Jeffrey Wertkin, who prosecutors said also sought to use the 40 lawsuits he stole to drum up business once he joined Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP in Washington D.C. in 2016, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Maxine Chesney in San Francisco, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors sought 34 months for Wertkin, 41, who was arrested in January 2017 trying to sell an undercover federal agent one of the lawsuits while wearing a wig as a disguise, according to court papers.

He pleaded guilty in November to charges of obstruction of justice and interstate transportation of stolen goods. His lawyers argued his “aberrant” conduct stemmed from anxiety and depression.

Before joining Akin Gump in April 2016, Wertkin worked in a DOJ division that handles lawsuits filed by whistleblowers against companies on the government’s behalf to recover taxpayer funds paid out based on fraudulent claims.

Those lawsuits are filed pursuant to the False Claims Act under seal to allow the government to determine whether it wants to join the cases. Whistleblowers can receive a cut of any settlement or verdict.

Prosecutors said that, before leaving the Justice Department, Wertkin began making electronic copies of lawsuits or sneaking into his boss’s office at night to copy complaints he found there.

Once at Akin Gump, Wertkin pitched his services to companies he knew were under investigation and later to try to sell some of complaints to corporations the government was probing.

In one instance, Wertkin using the alias of “Dan” used a burner phone to offer an employee at one targeted a copy of a lawsuit in exchange for a “consulting fee,” prosecutors said.

That employee reported “Dan” to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and negotiated to have a colleague, who was actually an undercover FBI agent, deliver $310,000 to Wertkin in exchange for the lawsuit, prosecutors said.

A disguised Wertkin was arrested at a Cupertino, California, hotel trying sell a copy of the lawsuit to the agent, prosecutors said.

After his arrest, Wertkin returned to Akin Gump to destroy evidence and stage his office to falsely implicate other Justice Department officials as the source of the complaints, prosecutors said.

Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; editing by Diane Craft