(Bloomberg) -- Matthew Whitaker’s legal work for most of the past decade consisted of defending run-of-the-mill clients in Iowa: a woman accused of shoplifting, a mid-level drug dealer, a drunk man charged with throwing food at a Kum & Go convenience store window.
Now, he’s the acting U.S. attorney general.
Working at a small law firm based in Des Moines, Whitaker represented several dozen accused criminals in cases with little or no profile outside his home state, according to a review of his legal work in local, state and federal court, and interviews with attorneys who worked with him.
Aside from a five-year stint as a U.S. attorney in Iowa, his highest-profile venture was the past 13 months as ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ chief of staff.
Whitaker’s sudden elevation has stoked outrage in the legal community and among Democrats, who claim President Donald Trump selected him because he has publicly criticized Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. Senate Democrats sued on Monday to block his appointment -- at least the fourth legal challenge -- claiming it violates the Constitution because he wasn’t confirmed by the Senate.
Typically, presidents have turned to the deputy attorney general -- a Senate-confirmed post -- to fill the vacancy when an attorney general departs. But in selecting Whitaker, Trump passed over Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has had a tense relationship with the president since appointing Mueller to oversee the Russia investigation. Rosenstein has been confirmed by the Senate and was the country’s longest-serving U.S. attorney before becoming deputy attorney general at the start of the Trump administration.
Before his appointment earlier this month, Whitaker had spent just over a year at the Justice Department working as Sessions’ chief of staff. He now oversees the Justice Department’s 113,000 employees, including Mueller, and the country’s most sensitive criminal investigations. Trump hasn’t said when he’ll name a permanent attorney general, and Whitaker could remain in the job for 210 days or possibly longer if Trump’s nominee hasn’t been confirmed yet.
“Acting AG Whitaker is a well-qualified and respected former U.S. attorney who Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on Friday called ‘a superb choice,’" Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement. “He has the confidence of the president, Department of Justice leadership, and key leaders in Congress. He has spent his career dedicated to the practice of law and is well-regarded at the Justice Department.”
Arson and Tax Fraud
In one of his highest-profile cases in private practice, Whitaker represented a Minnesota filmmaker, Wendy Runge, who pleaded guilty to a scheme to take advantage of tax credits to encourage more movies to be filmed in Iowa. The case drew local media attention for the spotlight it put on the state’s troubled film office. Runge, who was one of several defendants convicted for abuses related to the film program, was sentenced in 2011 to 10 years in prison but was released on probation after serving only about six months in prison.
“He would push arguments as hard as he could,’’ said Robert Rigg, an attorney for another defendant in the case. “What tended to drive him was his client’s instructions to him, which can be a real virtue or a hindrance.”
He won an acquittal for Andrew Blobaum, the owner of a Des Moines auto body shop accused of arson and mail fraud over a fire at his business. Firefighters noticed the strong odor of gas at the building, and investigators determined that four different fires had been set in the building. But jurors rejected the prosecution’s case after a defense expert witness questioned the forensic evidence.
Whitaker spent the years immediately before Trump’s election as the executive director of a nonprofit called the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, or FACT, which he joined in 2014. Financed by a conservative megafund whose donors are undisclosed, FACT hired right-leaning firms for publicity and legal services. At the group, Whitaker oversaw attacks on several of Trump’s favorite targets, including Democrats Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris.
That pedigree stands in stark contrast to most of his recent predecessors’ legal backgrounds.
Trump’s first acting attorney general, Sally Yates, had served as deputy attorney general for 20 months before taking over while Sessions awaited confirmation. She previously spent five years as the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, where she had spent most of her career and was the lead prosecutor for the 1996 Summer Olympics bomber.
When Trump fired Yates in January 2017 for refusing to carry out his travel ban on people from several predominantly Muslim countries, she was replaced by Dana Boente, who had served as the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana and the Eastern District of Virginia, where he was involved in the sentencing of the state’s former governor.
Failed Political Campaigns
Despite his reputation in Iowa as a solid lawyer, Whitaker didn’t stand out as a legal heavyweight and was known for having strong partisan leanings, according to those who worked with him. He was passed over for a nomination to the Iowa Supreme Court in 2011 when he was one of 61 candidates interviewed for three openings. He mounted two failed political campaigns, one for Iowa treasurer in 2002 and another to be the Republican Senate nominee in 2014.
Whitaker served as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa from 2004 to 2009. He prosecuted child pornography and oversaw a crackdown on a Swift & Co. meatpacking plant, ultimately securing convictions of about 30 workers for identity theft and immigration violations.
His tenure was also marked by controversy. Whitaker prosecuted Iowa state Senator Matt McCoy, a Democrat and openly gay lawmaker, claiming in 2007 he had tried to extort a business partner of $2,000. Critics questioned why Whitaker would bring charges over such a small amount. Jurors acquitted McCoy after less than two hours of deliberation.
$75 Shoplifting Charge
In 2016, the year before he came to Washington, Whitaker’s clients included a woman accused of stealing merchandise worth $75 from a local Dillard’s department store whose case was eventually dismissed. Another client that year was an Iowa drug dealer, who was among 20 arrested by federal agents as part of a multi-state drug-trafficking ring. The 26-year-old, who was caught on calls touting his expertise in marijuana quality, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 73 months in prison.
Maryland’s attorney general challenged Whitaker’s appointment last week, calling him an “unqualified” partisan chosen by the president to protect himself from possible charges.
“President Trump is denying senators our constitutional obligation and opportunity to do our job: scrutinizing the nomination of our nation’s top law enforcement official,” said Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, one of plaintiffs in the Democratic senators’ lawsuit. “The reason is simple: Whitaker would never pass the advice and consent test. In selecting a so-called constitutional nobody and thwarting every senator’s constitutional duty, Trump leaves us no choice but to seek recourse through the courts.”
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