A promising Washington D.C. lawyer who admittedly stole and peddled sealed whistleblower lawsuits from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), his former employer, is now cooperating with federal officials to help them prevent future False Claims Acts (FCA) cases and their relators from being jeopardized.
Jeffrey Wertkin, a 41-year-old partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, was busted in the lobby of a Cupertino, California, hotel last year trying to sell a sealed whistleblower complaint to an undercover FBI agent. The lawsuit was one of several False Claims Act complaints he illegally removed from the Justice Department before he began working with the private D.C. firm.
As a former high-stakes corporate-fraud prosecutor with the Justice Department’s civil fraud division, where he worked for six years, Mr. Wertkin had access to False Claims Act lawsuits filed by whistleblowers. Such lawsuits, which typically involve alleged fraud committed against government programs and agencies, remain under seal until Justice Department officials can investigate the claims and determine whether to actively back the whistleblower claims.
According to the Washington Post, Some of the whistleblower cases Mr. Wertkin tried to hawk had not been assigned to him, raising even more questions about the Justice Department’s security protocol. It’s not clear whether the specific cases Mr. Wertkin took have been damaged by his actions.
Keeping False Claims Act whistleblower lawsuits under seal is an important measure intended to allow federal officials to investigate claims without potential interference from the named defendants. The sealing process also helps protect the identities and careers of the whistleblowers bringing the complaints.
Mr. Wertkin’s actions potentially damaged the integrity of this system, and now federal officials are scrambling to figure out how to prevent False Claims Act cases from being stolen by corrupted officials.
According to the Washington Post:
Before his sentencing, Wertkin has promised to meet with Justice Department supervisors to tell them how he managed to steal sensitive documents without being detected. The pledge is part of his plea deal on charges of obstructing justice and transporting stolen property when he took a file from Washington to California for a sale before he was caught last January.
Mr. Werkin explained in his plea agreement what drove him to remove the sealed whistleblower lawsuits.
“I began secretly reviewing and collecting complaints to identify clients to solicit for business when I was in practice and, thereby, to make myself more successful at Akin Gump,” his plea agreement states.
“I knew and understood that doing so was an illegal theft of the complaints and, during my exit process, I intentionally lied to the Department of Justice about taking the complaints with me,” he said during his plea hearing, according to the Washington Post.
Mr. Wertkin told investigators that he hoped to drum up business for himself and his new firm by hawking the sealed cases.
In addition to the California technology firm that he tried to sell a copy of the sealed whistleblower complaint to, Mr. Wertkin admitted he had tried to sell a second sealed lawsuit in January 2017 to an Oregon company. He first mailed a redacted copy of the federal lawsuit’s cover sheet to prove he held the actual complaint. He also said he used information in an undisclosed number of sealed complaints “to improperly solicit” more business, managing in one case to convince a company “to retain my services as an attorney to represent it in its lawsuit,” the Washington Post reported.