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Blog Post | June 7, 2021

Revolver Spotlight: Leslie Caldwell

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Revolver Spotlight: Leslie Caldwell

As part of the effort to de-Trumpify the federal government, the Biden Administration has begun announcing nominees for U.S. Attorney positions across the country. These 93 offices will hold immense power on criminal enforcement of nearly every issue in the justice system, from civil rights to white-collar crime enforcement. Alongside over 30 social, racial, and economic justice organizations, we have previously urged Biden to nominate U.S. attorneys who are committed to meaningful criminal justice reform, rather than corporate law attorneys who have helped construct the broken status quo. 

One such corporate attorney — who has seemed particularly eager to score a U.S. Attorney nomination — is former DOJ Criminal Division head Leslie Caldwell. Despite making her name on the DOJ’s Enron prosecution task force, Caldwell has spent much of the last two decades helping powerful corporations evade accountability, both at the Obama DOJ and as a partner at BigLaw giants Morgan Lewis and Latham & Watkins. Her failure to prosecute white-collar criminals while in government and current role aiding giant corporations in white-collar defense is particularly alarming, given that U.S. Attorney offices are at the front lines for white-collar criminal prosecutions. As TNR’s Ankush Khardori noted last year, most high-profile white-collar prosecutions are “carried out by U.S. attorneys’ offices in a small number of districts” (including Manhattan, Chicago, Los Angeles, Northern Virginia, and D.C.) and the prosecutorial priorities of these offices are set largely by U.S. Attorneys themselves. Putting Caldwell — an ally of white-collar criminals — in one of these powerful roles would be an alarming step backwards at a time when Biden has promised to “prevent and combat corruption at home and abroad”. 

Here are just a few reasons why Caldwell would be an alarming selection for a U.S. attorney slot or any other administration job. 

Caldwell secured a lucrative job defending giant corporations from government investigations at Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP immediately after serving on the DOJ Enron Task Force.

  • In September 2004 — just four months after she had resigned as Director of the DOJ’s Enron Task Force — Caldwell joined Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP as a white-collar defense partner. In a stark reversal of the work she had done at DOJ, Caldwell leveraged her first-person experience in DOJ corporate investigations on behalf of the firm’s clients and “provided legal representation for companies and executives under investigation by the government.”
  • Caldwell’s clients at Morgan Lewis included some of America’s largest corporations, such as Oracle Corp, Cisco Systems, Hewlett Packard, Northrop Grumman, Toyota, Morgan Stanley, Fannie Mae, and Deutsche Bank. 

Caldwell repeatedly failed to hold corporate lawbreakers accountable as head of the DOJ’s Criminal Division from 2014 to 2017.

  • Caldwell left Morgan Lewis in 2014 to serve as Assistant Attorney General for the DOJ’s Criminal Division, a powerful role overseeing white-collar crime prosecutions, money-laundering cases, and corporate fraud enforcement. During her tenure as AAG, white-collar prosecutions fell to a 20-year low
  • Under Caldwell, the DOJ continued to rely on Deferred Prosecution Agreements (DPAs) and Non-Prosecution Agreements in corporate white-collar criminal cases, deals that allow corporations to evade immediate prosecution if they pay a fine, nominally agree to reforms, and promise not to commit further crimes. Caldwell praised DPAs and NPAs in 2015 for “providing explicit roadmaps for companies to get back on track” and claimed that signatories would be subject to immediate criminal charges if they violated these agreements.  As Public Citizen’s Rick Claypool noted in 2019, at least 38 corporations who entered DPAs or NPAs with the government went on to commit subsequent financial crimes, with Caldwell’s Division repeatedly failing to enforce the terms of original agreements for repeat offenders.
  • Caldwell personally oversaw DPAs and NPAs with several repeat-offender banks during her stint as AAG, including Deutsche Bank (for its manipulation of the LIBOR, which occurred after it had pledged to “commit no crimes whatsoever” in a 2010 NPA) and JPMorgan Chase (for its attempts to bribe Chinese regulators, which occurred during the probationary period of a 2014 DPA regarding the bank’s involvement in the Bernie Madoff scandal). 
  • As one of her final acts in office, Caldwell announced an $82 million NPA-derived settlement with General Cable Corporation in 2017 over the company’s bribery of African and Asian regulators. Caldwell repeated this strategy of fining repeat-offenders a mere fraction of their annual profits (as opposed to prosecuting company executives) with a $30 million settlement between the DOJ and medical device company Zimmer Biomet (another repeat DPA-offender named by Claypool) over FCPA violations that same month. 
  • Caldwell successfully urged the Supreme Court in 2015 to toss an EU civil suit accusing multinational conglomerate RJR Nabisco of money-laundering. Upon the Court’s 2016 4-3 ruling in favor of Nabisco, Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan issued a strong dissent noting that “all defendants are U.S. corporations, headquartered in the United States, charged with a pattern of racketeering activity directed and managed from the United States, involving conduct occurring in the United States.”

Caldwell championed the expansion of government surveillance and cybercrime enforcement powers, prompting strong backlash from civil liberties groups.

  • Under Caldwell, the DOJ’s Criminal Division successfully prosecuted journalist Matthew Keys on felony hacking charges for password-sharing with the hacktivist group Anonymous. Keys’ defense team argued that Caldwell’s push for a 25-year jail sentence for Keys was disproportionately harsh considering the limited scale of his crime, noting that the sharing of login credentials only resulted in “a few altered words in a LA Times story on tax cuts.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation similarly blasted Caldwell, calling the possibility of a 25-year sentence for Keys “an illustration of prosecutorial discretion run amok.”. EFF also questioned Caldwell’s dubious calculation of damages in the Keys case, noting her estimation of incurred losses of $929,977 “didn’t add up” for a single defaced article that was taken down after 40 minutes. Compared to the extraordinarily lenient treatment of white-collar criminals under Caldwell’s tenure as AAG, the Keys prosecution was a telling and troubling example of her prosecutorial priorities. 
  • Caldwell invoked the spectre of “hackers [and] pedophiles” to support a 2016 expansion of the FBI’s warrantless surveillance powers amid widespread concern that the then-incoming Trump administration would jeopardize the privacy rights of innocent Americans. Democratic Senator Ron Wyden warned that the expansive new powers would “amount to one of the biggest mistakes in surveillance policy in years” and provide the Trump administration “unprecedented authority to hack into Americans’ personal phones, computers and other devices.”

Caldwell leveraged her experience in the Obama DOJ to become a top corporate white-collar defense partner at Latham & Watkins in 2017. 

  • Caldwell earns $3 million annually at Latham & Watkins’ White-Collar Defense Practice, openly touting her “experience handling many of the most closely watched corporate criminal, fraud, and foreign bribery matters of the past two decades” as a former AAG to prospective corporate clients facing government investigations. 
  • While at Latham, Caldwell has spoken of her fondness for working on “both sides” of corporate white-collar crime issues, stating that she enjoys “trying to get my clients who may be starting in a bad place into the best position they can possibly be, whatever the facts are.”
  • One of Caldwell’s Latham clients was United Microelectronics Corporation (UMC), a Taiwanese semiconductor firm accused by the DOJ of partnering with a state-owned Chinese enterprise to steal trade secrets from Idaho-based semiconductor company Micron Technology. Caldwell successfully whittled down the DOJ’s initial case — which accused the company of economic espionage and sought penalties as high as $9 billion — to a $60 million fine and a single guilty plea of receiving and possessing a stolen trade secret. 
  • While the remainder of Caldwell’s clients remain confidential (her bio alludes to several unnamed Fortune 500 companies), partners at Latham’s white-collar practice have regularly defended giant healthcare, pharmaceutical, and chemical companies from government fraud investigations under the False Claims Act. Latham white-collar clients have included HCA Healthcare, Tenet Healthcare Corp, Sutter Health, Adventist Health West, UnitedHealth Group, Pacira Pharmaceuticals, and Dow Chemical
  • Caldwell works closely alongside Bush-era DOJ Criminal Division head Alice Fisher at Latham’s white-collar Practice. Fisher, like Caldwell, has directly leveraged her DOJ experience to defend corporations like Walgreens and Eli Lilly from securities, fraud, and antitrust investigations. Fisher has also previously helped Monsanto kill DOJ investigations into its alleged use of a banned and highly toxic pesticide, advised GOP Senator Richard Burr in a 2020 federal insider trading probe of his stock sales, and allegedly played an instrumental role in finalizing sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein’s “sweetheart” 2007 plea deal. 

Caldwell has supported and defended top Trump allies. 

  • Caldwell joined Alice Fisher and three other former DOJ Criminal Division heads to strongly endorse Trump’s nomination of Brian Benczkowski to lead the division in 2018. Benczkowski’s nomination was unanimously opposed by Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats over his past private-sector work for Alfa Bank, one of Russia’s largest financial institutions. Ultimately confirmed by the Senate by a 51-48 vote, Benczkowski presided over a further decline in DOJ efforts to combat white-collar crime, with annual prosecutions falling even lower than their Obama-era levels. 
  • Caldwell represented Trump Organization advisor and Russian mobster Felix Sater in his 2009 sentencing hearing on fraud charges, where she effusively praised Sater’s “redemption” and promised that he would “not appear before any court again in the context of a criminal case.” Leaked emails later revealed that Sater, a longtime advisor to the Trump Organization tasked with helming efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, boasted to Trump “fixer” Michael Cohen of his personal connections to Vladimir Putin during Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Following Trump’s victory, Sater allegedly worked with Cohen on an outlandish plan to blackmail Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and secure long-term land rights to the Crimean Peninsula for the Russian government. 
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