When new hire Matthew Whitaker at US Justice Department shocked Federal Trade Commission

Mr Matthew Whitaker's appointment prompted an outcry in part because he had sharply criticised the investigation into Russia's election interference, which he now oversees as acting Attorney-General.
Mr Matthew Whitaker's appointment prompted an outcry in part because he had sharply criticised the investigation into Russia's election interference, which he now oversees as acting Attorney-General.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES, REUTERS) - As Federal Trade Commission (FTC) lawyers investigated a Miami company accused of defrauding thousands of customers, they were stunned to learn last year about a new job for a figure in their inquiry, Matthew Whitaker: He had been named chief of staff to Attorney-General Jeff Sessions.

"You're not going to believe this... Matt Whitaker is now chief of staff to the Attorney General. Of the United States," James Evans, an FTC lawyer, wrote to colleagues in an e-mail on Oct 24, 2017.

The e-mails were part of a trove of files the trade commission made public on Friday (Nov 30) in response to Freedom of Information Act requests for documents about its investigation into the company, World Patent Marketing. Whitaker sat on its advisory board.

In early November, President Donald Trump fired Sessions and installed Whitaker as the acting attorney-general.

His appointment immediately prompted an outcry in part because Whitaker had sharply criticised the special counsel investigation into Russia's election interference and possible ties to Trump associates, which he now oversees as the nation's top law enforcement officer.

Democrats have expressed alarm and vowed to investigate Whitaker when they take over the House of Representatives in January.

Long before most Americans had heard of Whitaker, the FTC had been scrutinising his connections to World Patent Marketing.

The company had promised investors lucrative patent agreements but instead brazenly ripped them off, according to the agency. Its investigation prompted a federal judge to shut down the firm in March 2017, and it was later fined nearly US$26 million (S$36 million).

Whitaker served on the company's advisory board from 2014 to 2017, and played a central role in its marketing scheme, the newly disclosed files showed. He was paid nearly US$10,000.

The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment on the FTC files, but in the past, Kerri Kupec, a department spokesman, has said that "acting attorney general Matt Whitaker has said he was not aware of any fraudulent activity. Any stories suggesting otherwise are false".

Whitaker will appear before the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee in January, when a new Democratic majority expects to begin ramping up House oversight of the Trump administration.

Whitaker has tried to play down his role with World Patent Marketing. He told Evans, the trade commission investigator, that he "acted as an outside lawyer from time to time" for the company and never e-mailed or wrote to customers, according to the files.

As for his time on the advisory board, Whitaker said he never attended a meeting and travelled only once to Miami for a tour and dinner, which he described as a waste of time.

But the newly disclosed documents shed light on the origins and nature of Whitaker's involvement with the company - including how little time he took to evaluate proposals by its president, Scott Cooper, for work he wanted Whitaker to do.

The files, for example, indicate Cooper initially suggested to Whitaker that he wanted his "counsel on any regulatory issues". On Oct 15, 2014, Cooper offered Whitaker a role on World Patent Marketing's advisory board in exchange for US$1,875 per quarter, plus the promise of one free trip to Miami Beach a year for an annual meeting.

Whitaker did not take long to weigh the offer: "Yes, I am interested," he replied hours later, and he signed and returned the agreement the next day.

Soon, Cooper expressed interest in using Whitaker's previous role as a US attorney in Iowa to lend credibility to the firm. Whitaker again went along.

On Nov 17, 2014, about a month after he signed the paperwork to join the advisory board, Cooper wrote: "Hey Matt Any interest in appearing in a national television commercial for us on CNN? We can work out compensation later..."

Ninety-one minutes later, Whitaker wrote back: "Sure."

Cooper appeared eager to capitalise on Whitaker's willingness to lend his reputation to the company's endeavours. Four days after the ad proposal, for example, Cooper sent an e-mail to a Web company consisting of the subject line, "Let's build a Wikipedia page and use Whitaker to make it credible". Many of the newly disclosed pages consist of marketing materials, including several scripts that would feature Whitaker.

 
 
 
 

By the summer of 2015, Cooper went further.

He proposed that Whitaker get personally involved in a dispute with a man who was apparently a disgruntled former employee of Cooper's at a different business. The man had threatened to complain about him and World Patent Marketing to the Better Business Bureau.

On the afternoon of Aug 21, 2015, Cooper sent a proposed draft of a letter he had ghostwritten for Whitaker to send to the complainer, invoking his status as a former federal prosecutor and member of the firm's advisory board, and threatening the man with "serious civil and criminal consequences" for what he suggested was tantamount to blackmail or extortion.

Whitaker made a few minor changes to the draft and hit send. In all, he had spent about six minutes from receiving the proposed draft to inserting himself directly in the dispute, as Cooper had hoped he would do.

That email from Whitaker later became part of the litigation over World Patent Marketing, and was cited as a message he sent to one of the firm's customers in news articles in recent weeks about how his activities with the now-defunct firm were dogging his appointment to be acting attorney general.

FTC investigators were immersed in such exchanges last fall when they subpoenaed Whitaker's former law firm on Oct 5, 2017, and tried to get in touch with him about why he was not responding to it - just as he was being hired as chief of staff to Sessions. But the agency was initially unaware of his turn of fortune.

Among the files released on Friday were an email and a voicemail message to Whitaker from Evans, in which he noted it was his second attempt to reach Whitaker. Evans said he needed four or five minutes of Whitaker's time by phone to discuss his relationship with World Patent Marketing.

A second voicemail made public was Whitaker's response to Evans. He said he had not been aware of the subpoena previously, and then he shared his news: "I am now at the Department of the Justice here in Washington, D.C., as the chief of staff to the attorney general. So I want to be very helpful."

Evans was stunned. He wrote his email expressing his shock - "you're not going to believe this" - and attached a voicemail message, apparently the one from Whitaker.

Three minutes later, Evans sent a follow-up email containing a link to a Sept 22, 2017, HuffPost article about the announcement that Whitaker would become Sessions' chief of staff. The article focused on Whitaker's numerous statements denigrating the investigation by Robert Mueller, the special counsel.

"O.M.G.," one of Evans' colleagues responded. The colleague, Jody Goodman, cited Whitaker's criticism of Mueller's inquiry and compared it with his work for World Patent Marketing, adding a screenshot of a marketing material in which Whitaker said: "As a former US attorney, I would only align myself with a first class organization. World Patent Marketing goes beyond making statements about doing business 'ethically' and translates them into action."

The next day, another trade commission lawyer responded to both messages: "OMG is right!"