Trump Organization asks House panel to stop probes, citing alleged conflict of interest
WASHINGTON — A lawyer for the Trump Organization has asked the House Judiciary Committee to cease any investigations related to it, claiming that the panel’s work has been tainted by its hiring of an outside lawyer whose firm has represented Trump’s company.
In a letter Monday to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., Trump Organization lawyer Alan Futerfas objected to the committee’s hiring of Berry Berke on the grounds that his law firm, Kramer Levin, has represented the Trump Organization on an array of issues.
“This state of affairs violates recognized ethical obligations and irreparably taints the Committee’s work,” Futerfas wrote, adding that it “requires that the Committee cease and desist from any and all activities that are adverse to the Company.”
Futerfas raised similar concerns in a letter last week to House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., saying his panel works closely with Nadler’s committee.
In a statement, Kramer Levin called the Trump Organization’s letter to Nadler “baseless” and said Berke’s consulting work for the Judiciary Committee “complies fully with all applicable ethical rules, does not pose any conflicts of interest and respects any obligations the firm may have.”
A spokesman for the Judiciary Committee Democrats called the assertions in the Trump letter “without merit,” but the dispute continued throughout the day Monday.
A legal ethics expert, Stephen Gillers of New York University, said the important test in this case is whether Berke has effectively been sealed off from access to law firm information related to Trump. A spokeswoman for the firm, Jennifer Manton, said “Kramer Levin has taken all necessary precautions to screen Barry Berke from any Trump related matters.”
Nadler announced Berke’s hiring two weeks ago, calling him “a nationally prominent expert on federal criminal law, including public corruption.”
The firm, Kramer Levin pushed back on Trump Org's claims of a conflict. "In making its baseless accusations" the Trump Org letter "grossly misstated the facts of our prior representations and how the applicable ethical rules apply to those facts." https://t.co/DQCx2JOjxm
— Tierney Sneed (@Tierney_Megan) February 25, 2019
Berke has helped guide the Judiciary Committee’s ongoing inquiry examining legal and ethical issues facing Trump, including whether the president tried to obstruct efforts by special counsel Robert Mueller to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“We have to follow the facts and conduct the sort of oversight that has been completely absent over the last two years,” Nadler said in a statement issued earlier this month, announcing that Berke and another outside expert, Norm Eisen, would be added to the Democrats’ team. A person familiar with the process of bringing them aboard said their hiring was reviewed and approved by the House Administration Committee.
Former Trump personal lawyer Michael Cohen is scheduled to appear publicly before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday. The scope of the hearing will include Trump’s business interests, according to a memo distributed to committee members on Sunday.
In its statement, Kramer Levin said Berke was working for the Judiciary Committee in his personal capacity and that the firm would not receive any compensation or provide legal support.
The firm also said that none of the work it has done for Trump’s companies is related to the work Berke will be doing for the committee and that no lawyer at the firm is working on any “Trump-affiliated matter.”
“Indeed, for the past several years the firm’s work has involved only minor tasks for single purpose companies, such as pro forma amendments to condominium offering plans that date back more than a decade or the clearing up of minor building violations for management companies,” the statement said.
The Trump Organization responded Monday evening, calling the law firm’s statement “false” and disturbing.
“We are baffled by Kramer Levin’s decision to accept an engagement that is directly adverse to us — without ever contacting us — and in flagrant breach of core ethical obligations known to every lawyer in America,” the organization said.
Contrary to today’s statement by Kramer Levin, the Trump Organization said it “is, in fact, a current client of Kramer Levin. The fact that Mr. Berke is performing work for the House Judiciary Committee on a pro bono basis does not excuse him or the firm from strict compliance with the rules governing lawyer conduct.”
Kramer Levin praised Berke for performing “public service” and said he is “following in the finest traditions of the legal profession.”
Nonetheless, the law firm seemed concerned about public perceptions about its role. On Friday, the firm edited the biography of another partner who had done work for the Trump Organization, Jay Neveloff.
Until Friday, Neveloff’s biography on the firm website included a reference to his work for Donald Trump and the Trump Organization “for more than 25 years in innumerable real estate matters, including Trump Tower, 40 Wall Street, Trump Palace, Trump International in New York and Chicago, the GM Building, the Plaza Hotel, and numerous other matters.”
Democrats are launching an investigation to discover why Deutsche Bank was willing to lend the Trump Organization money when other banks wouldn’t and whether Russia was involved https://t.co/4ko9nZjxxP
— POLITICO (@politico) February 25, 2019
That reference was cited in the Trump Organization’s letter of complaint to the House Oversight Committee on Friday. That day, however, it disappeared from the firm’s website.
“It is common practice to list prior representative experience in lawyer biographies on the website,” said Manton, the firm’s spokeswoman. “The reference in Jay Neveloff’s bio was removed on Friday to avoid confusion.”