Peter Zeidenberg.
Peter Zeidenberg. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/NLJ)

The U.S. Department of Justice this week escalated the war of words in a fight over whether former federal prosecutor Peter Zeidenberg should be allowed to represent convicted ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

During Zeidenberg’s time in the Justice Department, he prosecuted David Safavian, a government official nabbed in the Abramoff scandal. Zeidenberg, now a partner at Arent Fox, wasn’t part of the team that prosecuted Abramoff, but the Justice Department said the connection was close enough to potentially disqualify him from representing Abramoff now.

Zeidenberg disagreed in recent court filings, accusing the Justice Department of pursuing a “frivolous” action and engaging in “tactical abuse.” On June 30, lawyers for the government filed a response using equally strong language, calling Zeidenberg’s response “almost flippant.”

“Defense counsel’s rather incredulous and high-brow response that he is presumptively above reproach falls far short of the mark of a responsible response to this situation,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Oliver McDaniel wrote. “The United States has serious concerns about one of its attorneys switching sides and believes that this matter deserves more serious and sober review.”

Zeidenberg, who declined to comment, began representing Abramoff earlier this year. Abramoff is on the hook for tens of millions of dollars in restitution after pleading guilty to conspiracy to bribe public officials and fraud. In May, he challenged the federal government’s seizure of nearly $450,000 in federal tax refunds he was owed. Abramoff argued the judge should decide how the money should be spent, and asked to use it to pay Maryland state back taxes and to cover bills for his accountants and for Zeidenberg’s services.

The Justice Department last month asked U.S. District Senior Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle to require Zeidenberg to show why he shouldn’t be disqualified, saying the government was “concerned” about possible conflicts of interest.

Zeidenberg, in his response to the government, said prosecutors presented no evidence that he learned anything during his time with the Justice Department that related to the tax-refund issue.

“This question is a red herring; the instant matter concerning the seizure of Mr. Abramoff’s tax refund has nothing whatsoever to do with the underlying conspiracy case to which Mr. Abramoff long ago pleaded guilty and served his sentence,” Zeidenberg wrote.

Prosecutors, in their initial June 13 filing on the disqualification issue, said they appreciated that the question of whether Zeidenberg’s current representation of Abramoff was “substantially related” to his prior work was “not subject to ready resolution.” They took a firmer stance in the June 30 court papers, saying the “circumstances of this case are undeniable and compelling.”

Zeidenberg likely learned information about Abramoff’s assets and finances while he was preparing the case against Safavian and would have a sense of what the government knows about its ability to recover money from Abramoff, McDaniel wrote.

“Perhaps more significant,” McDaniel wrote, “Mr. Zeidenberg may have gained direct or indirect knowledge about what the government does not know on the subject.”

Huvelle put Abramoff’s underlying challenge to the seizure of his tax refunds on hold until she decides whether Zeidenberg can continue serving as his lawyer.

Contact Zoe Tillman at ztillman@alm.com. On Twitter: @zoetillman.