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Senate Probe of Trump DOJ Actions Flips Script at WilmerHale

Sept. 15, 2022, 9:00 AM

A new book’s accusations of improper partisan interference inside former President Donald Trump’s Justice Department puts WilmerHale in the uncomfortable position of having a congressional investigations partner the subject of a Senate probe.

A former Manhattan-based US attorney claimed that Wilmer lawyer Edward O’Callaghan, as a senior DOJ leader in 2018, pressured federal prosecutors to “even things out” by bringing criminal charges before the midterm election against the Obama White House’s top attorney.

O’Callaghan, through a Wilmer spokesman, denied as “categorically false” the allegation laid out in Geoffrey Berman’s book, “Holding the Line.” Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has already asked DOJ to produce materials that would capture communications between O’Callaghan and the US attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York.

The accusation is bringing scrutiny to O’Callaghan during his present-day life in private practice. His firm boasts on its website of having represented clients in more than 235 congressional investigations over the past decade.

“A situation like this could very well make a lawyer radioactive,” said Steven Harper, author of “The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis” and a retired Kirkland & Ellis partner. “Clients come to a firm, particularly in a congressional investigation, because they want help and without taking on whatever baggage that a particular lawyer in the firm might bring along.”

Berman’s book published Sept. 13 about serving as US attorney under Trump recounts phone calls between O’Callaghan and Berman’s deputy. O’Callaghan allegedly urged SDNY to charge Obama’s former attorney Greg Craig for violating an overseas lobbying law.

Berman, a Republican who was ousted from the role in 2020 and is now a partner at Fried Frank, wound up declining to prosecute Craig, who he concluded was innocent. Main Justice then referred the case to a different US attorney’s office, which did ultimately charge Craig, Berman writes in his book. Craig was acquitted in 2019.

In a separate episode, Berman describes O’Callaghan telling the same SDNY deputy to remove references to Trump from a draft of the charging document for former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen before it was publicly released.

Wilmer spokesman Frank James declined to address questions about O’Callaghan’s status or his potential plans for legal representation in any congressional probe that might occur. Several attorneys who practice in this area predicted it’s likely he would retain counsel from a different firm.

O’Callaghan held several senior political roles at DOJ in the Trump era. He previously was a career line prosecutor for nine years in the same New York federal prosecutor’s office that Berman later led.

He was “only the messenger” and had a “solid reputation,” Berman writes. “Still, it was galling for those in our office who knew him.”

A graduate of New York University Law School, O’Callaghan joined Wilmer in 2020, following his service as principal associate deputy attorney general and acting deputy attorney general.

He is listed on the firm’s website as one of the many former senior government officials and Hill staffers from both parties who specialize in navigating clients through congressional investigations—either as the direct subjects or if they face potential collateral damage.

That’s included prepping senior executives from companies such as Facebook and Moderna Therapeutics before they testified on the Hill.

The firm’s roster of lawyers includes Clinton-era deputy attorney general Jamie Gorelick and solicitor general Seth Waxman, and former SDNY chief Preet Bharara. Robert Mueller, the former FBI director who led the probe into alleged Russian interference with the 2016 election, is a retired partner.

It’s not unusual for a large Washington law firm to see a partner become a target of a congressional probe; the House Jan. 6 committee offers recent examples in which Trump DOJ personnel who now work in private practice were called to testify.

If Durbin’s committee obtains documents from DOJ that verify Berman’s account, it may amplify pressure on Wilmer to address the matter, internally or publicly.

“Right now, Ed O’Callaghan features pretty prominently in some allegations that are explosive,” Harper said. “One of two things could happen, I suppose: The firm could rally around O’Callaghan and say whatever Berman is accusing him of is untrue” or “the law firm will distance itself from the lawyer who is the subject of public scrutiny.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Penn in Washington at bpenn@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Seth Stern at sstern@bloomberglaw.com; John Crawley at jcrawley@bloomberglaw.com