After four years leading U.S. government efforts to prosecute financial crime, Lanny Breuer is returning to private practice where he’ll help expand his old law firm’s white-collar criminal defense practice.
Breuer, who this month left his job as head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, will become the vice chairman of Covington & Burling LLP, the firm he’s spent parts of 19 years with over the course of his career.
His return to private practice ends a term in which the division secured some of the largest criminal settlements in the department’s history, even as it faced criticism for not bringing cases against Wall Street executives over the 2008 financial crisis.
The 54-year-old Breuer rejoins Covington’s Washington office in a newly created role. As vice chairman, he said he plans to spearhead the development of a large practice covering white-collar defense, civil-litigation and crisis-management.
“I now have such an intuitive and nuanced sense of how the Justice Department, how the government, makes important decisions,” Breuer said in an interview yesterday at the firm’s Washington office. “I believe I can help companies and individuals act appropriately.”
Breuer has a two-year “cooling off” period where he isn’t allowed to set foot in the Justice Department or work on issues he oversaw while leading the criminal division. He said he’s allowed to advise clients on new matters and will have “an ethics officer on speed-dial” while navigating his return to Covington, the only place he’s worked in private practice.
A New York native, Breuer served in the White House counsel’s office under President Bill Clinton from 1997 through 1999 and defended Clinton during his Senate impeachment trial and a number of congressional investigations.
After leaving the White House, Breuer served as the co- chairman of Covington’s white-collar and investigations practice group before he was nominated in 2009 by President Barack Obama to take over the Justice Department’s criminal division.
Breuer’s list of clients before his time at the Justice Department read like a who’s who of corporate giants, including Eli Lilly & Co. (LLY:US), Koch Industries Inc., Microsoft Corp. (MSFT:US), Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM:US) and Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC:US), according to the disclosure forms he filed with the government ethics office in 2009.
Former Major League Baseball star Roger Clemens and former Citigroup Inc. Chief Executive Office Charles Prince are also among his previous clients, according to the disclosures.
While at the Justice Department, Breuer’s division oversaw the largest criminal resolution in U.S. history: the $4 billion settlement with BP Plc over the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Its investigation into the rigging of interest rates continues after settlements with two major banks, criminal charges against two traders and a guilty plea from a bank subsidiary.
Still, Breuer’s critics said there were shortcomings of his tenure, including an inability to pin cases on high-level Wall Street executives and the refusal to indict some financial institutions in connection with the 2008 crisis.
Throughout his tenure, Breuer maintained that had there been enough evidence to make a case for prosecuting top financial industry executives, his division or U.S. Attorneys offices around the country would have brought charges.
His public comments on the Justice Department’s policy of examining the economic impact of pursuing prosecutions against the largest Wall Street firms drew criticism from lawmakers including Senators Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, and Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican.
“These statements raise important questions about the Justice Department’s prosecutorial philosophy,” Brown and Grassley wrote in a Jan. 29 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder. “There should not be one set of rules that apply to Wall Street and another set for the rest of us.”
Lawmakers also faulted him for failing to notify superiors of problems during a bungled federal gun operation known as Fast and Furious. Breuer was admonished by Holder after he acknowledged in 2011 that he knew discredited “gun walking” tactics were used in an operation prior to Fast and Furious and didn’t alert his superiors or take steps to prevent them from being used again.
Still, when Breuer announced in January that he was leaving, Holder praised him for “accomplishing record penalties in corruption cases at home and abroad and dismantling major organized crime and health-care fraud networks around the country while also protecting the integrity of our banking system and fighting financial fraud.”
Timothy Hester, the chairman of Covington’s management committee, called Breuer “one of the most talented advocates and counselors of his generation.” Breuer’s new role will include working with clients on global and strategic business, litigation and compliance issues, Hester said in a statement.
Some former clients have contacted him since his departure, Breuer said. He also might try to lure some of his former colleagues at the Justice Department to the firm when opportunities arise.
Breuer didn’t rule out returning to government service some day.
“It’s not like two weeks after I left I was pining to be there,” he said. “I don’t feel like I left much on the table.”
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