Nixon Peabody has acquired a three-lawyer law firm led by an Obama-era acting director of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency as Big Law white collar practices shift in response to Trump administration prosecution preferences.
John Sandweg, who led the agency for roughly six months in 2014, will be a partner in Washington. He formerly led boutique law firm Frontier Solutions and is joined in the move by two lawyers, two investigators and a legal assistant.
Leading an agency is often a resume-builder for would-be Big Law partners. But ICE directors have not been recruited by the biggest law firms. Former agency leaders have typically worked in boutique firms or at companies specializing in investigations.
But Sandweg, who also served as acting general counsel of the Department of Homeland Security, said ICE’s increased enforcement activities under Trump impact the types of cross-border transactions that Nixon Peabody and other Big Law firms often handle. The agency has increased its enforcement activity targeting illegal immigration, trade and tariff fraud and employment compliance, Sandweg said.
“You are definitely seeing an uptick in the enforcement of [Department of Homeland Security crimes] across the board because they match the administration’s priorities,” Sandweg said.
The administration’s border policies have generated protests and lawsuits, and are a focus of the 2020 presidential campaign.
Federal prosecutions referred by ICE spiked to all-time highs during the past year, according to government data collected by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. The U.S. regularly brought more than 10,000 ICE-referred cases a month from mid-2018 through June. That number had typically ranged from about 7,000 to 9,000 from 2009 to 2015, before dipping in 2017, TRAC data show.
The more traditional Big Law practice of defending against federal white-collar prosecutions has taken a hit during the Trump presidency.
White collar prosecutions reached a 20-year low in 2018, according to Syracuse’s TRAC database. In May, the Justice Department reported 443 new white-collar criminal prosecutions, a 10% decline from the month prior and a nearly 35% decline from five years ago, according to a TRAC report.
Qui Tam, Too
Nixon Peabody in July hired a former DOJ trial lawyer, Adam Tarosky, with experience pursuing qui tam claims brought under the False Claims Act. Those cases, which recoup misappropriated funds on behalf of the government, have continued to be a focus of the DOJ.
The U.S. government has recouped more than $2 billion in settlements and judgments through qui tam cases every year since 2010, according to DOJ data. Those cases are often brought against companies in the health-care industry, where Nixon Peabody has a robust practice. Tarosky’s work at DOJ also focused on health-care fraud.
“Regardless of the broader enforcement focuses that do change with administrations, the aggressive enforcement of the False Claims Act remains consistent,” Tarosky said. “And that is part of the reason I think it’s such a good practice to be in and why I’m excited to be at Nixon Peabody to help build it.”
Previous ICE directors have gone on to work at top banks and international corporate investigations businesses.
But that was before ICE activity reached its current levels. One preferred enforcement mechanism in the Trump era is auditing company employment eligibility verification forms, known as an I-9 audit. The agency in fiscal 2018 launched 5,981 I-9 audits compared to 1,360 in 2017.
The agency has also conducted raids at employers’ work sites. Last month, ICE agents arrested hundreds of immigrant workers at seven food processing plants across Mississippi.
Nixon Peabody’s litigation department leader Scott O’Connell said Sandweg’s understanding of ICE and the Department of Homeland Security is in high demand. Sandweg’s new cross-border risks practice will focus on immigration-related compliance and enforcement matters that impact cross-border transactions.
“ICE is in the news all the time,” O’Connell said. “It is something the administration is using regularly for talking points, but it has [also] stepped into authority and reach for all kinds of cross-border transactions. It’s amazing, and it is kind of stealthy.”
Sandweg has made media appearances in recent months and has criticized some aspects of the administration’s immigration agenda. He told CNN in April that President Donald Trump’s suggestion to eliminate immigration judges was “the single dumbest idea I’ve ever heard” related to border crossings.
He said it was a “prerequisite” that he be able to voice his opinion on immigration while at Nixon Peabody.