A former corporate-fraud lawyer for the Department of Justice has been sentenced to 30 months in prison for stealing over 40 whistleblower fraud cases in 2016 and trying to sell the information to companies under federal investigation, according to prosecutors.
Jeffrey Wertkin, 40, was arrested in an undercover sting after an attorney for a Sunnyvale, CA tech company contacted the FBI in January following Wertkin's offer to sell them a sealed federal lawsuit for $310,000, according to court documents. As he was taken into custody wearing a wig and fake mustache at a Cupertino, CA hotel by FBI Special Agent William Scanlon, Wertkin reportedly said "My life is over."
Following his arrest, Wertkin engaged in an "obstruction binge" at his private law firm to destroy additional evidence of the scheme he had formulated for over a year, while also trying to frame a former colleague at the DOJ for the theft of the records.
A far more extensive and calculated crime was revealed at Wertkin's sentencing hearing - as the former DOJ prosecutor stole and copied dozens of files - some of which he swiped right off of his boss's desk, copied, and then re-stapled before returning them.
Wertkin "took grotesque advantage" of his position within the DOJ by "shaking down companies" and disclosing confidential information which "jeopardized the integrity of the civil justice system and unfairly cast a shadow over the work of the civil fraud section," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Robin L. Harris, who added that Wertkin's crime was "was breathtaking in its scope and is the most serious and egregious example of public corruption by a DOJ attorney in recent memory."
Wertkin worked from December 2010 to April 2016 in the department section responsible for recovering $4.7 billion in misspent tax dollars in 2016 alone. Under the False Claims Act, whistleblowers can receive part of recovered funds for tipping off fraud in government services and contracts by filing what are known as qui tam lawsuits under seal to protect their identities while the United States investigates. -MSN
Imploring the court for leniency, Wertkin said he committed the crimes while on "a terrible path" of substance abuse involving alcohol and marijuana during "a period of heightened anxiety and depression, a sense of impending failure at work and a deteriorating marriage."
“I believe I somehow viewed selling the complaints as a way to escape my problems,’’ reads a statement from Wertkin included in a court filing.
Path to destruction
Wertkin - who specialized in healthcare fraud, planned his brazen scheme as he was leaving his job of nearly six years as a DOJ fraud prosecutor in April 2016 to join the law firm Akin Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld as a $450,000 / year partner in Washington. He began copying files for over a month before leaving the agency - including dozens of federal cases that weren't assigned to him, according to court records.
From his position at Akin Gump, Wertkin attempted to net potential clients by dangling the stolen information. When that tactic bore no fruit, he stepped up his efforts - reaching out to a targeted Alabama company for $50,000, a New York company for an undetermined price, and an Oregon company to which he mailed a redacted copy of the cover sheet in their federal case as bait.
“I thought if I could quickly earn a substantial sum of money, I could provide the material benefits I promised my family upon moving to Akin Gump — a new house in a better neighborhood and private school’’ for his two children, wrote Wertkin, who lived near Dupont Circle.
Prosecutors said Wertkin's crime was nothing more than "narcissism and greed," before his 2 1/2 year sentence on two counts of obstructing justice and one count of interstate transport of stolen property was handed down in a Wednesday hearing in San Francisco. Wertkin's counsel had requested a sentence of a year and a day.
“Mr. Wertkin’s secret criminal life was not known to anyone at the firm. We were shocked when he was arrested and outraged when his bizarre, treacherous crimes were revealed,” said Akin Gump spokesman Benjamin J. Harris on Thursday.
In a letter to the court before Wertkin’s sentencing, the firm said it was a victim of his crime and defended its corporate culture.
The theft and misuse of government documents was a “reprehensible betrayal of Mr. Wertkin’s duties as a government lawyer” and of his ethical duties at Akin Gump, and were “harmful to the firm,” partner and general counsel Douglass B. Maynard wrote.
“Whatever drove Mr. Wertkin to his hidden criminal activity, it was not the culture of [sic] firm where he worked for nine months,” Maynard said. “The people he worked with at the firm saw him as a talented, well-liked young partner who appeared well on his way to a bright future.” -MSN
After Wertkin - a graduate of Georgetown Law, lost a $200 million case, he says he was left "devastated" and "a shell of a man," according to his wife Erin Erlenborn.
His defense attorney, Cristina C. "Cris" Arguedas said that Wertkin grew "increasingly irrational" and "truly believed he was at the end of his rope," as he called the general counsel of a California firm to try and sell a lawsuit.
Wertkin’s attorney called his actions truly aberrant in an otherwise “careful, diligent and unblemished life” and said it was “a testament to his previous standing in the legal community that so many attorneys and former government officials, including former DOJ attorneys” wrote letters to the sentencing judge on his behalf. -MSN
Wertkin has resigned from the bar.
“I hope someday I will be able to understand how I could have abandoned my principles and my honor,” said Wertkin in a pre-sentencing statement. “I often lay awake at night and think about these actions, and I weep at the tragedy that I have brought on myself.”
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