The Lawyer Who Said, 'This Ain't for Me'

The Lawyer Who Said, 'This Ain't for Me' Credit: Global Witness via Youtube

Jeffrey Herrmann isn’t a man who minces his words.

Herrmann, who runs his own small law firm in New York, was one of more than a dozen lawyers secretly recorded by a nonprofit anti-corruption organization recently. An investigator for the group, posing as a middleman for an African mining official, asked the lawyers how the official could park possibly illicit millions in U.S. real estate and other properties.

Of the 16 lawyers and 13 firms the investigator interviewed, all but one offered suggestions for how the man’s fictitious boss could buy a brownstone, a jet or other assets without revealing his identity, according to a report released Sunday by the nonprofit Global Witness.

Only Herrmann flat out denied the man any help.

“This ain’t for me,” Herrmann said with a wave of his hand. “My standards are higher.”

Global Witness is a London-based nonprofit that seeks to expose corruption worldwide. The group was trying to show how New York real estate attorneys help foreigners set up shell companies in the U.S. in order to purchase property and effectively hide their sometimes ill-gotten money here.

The Global Witness report, which aired on “60 Minutes” Sunday night, showed the investigator sometimes hinting and other times saying outright that his client earned his money through bribes.

When reached Monday by The Am Law Daily, Herrmann said he could barely recall the incident, but that seeing the “60 Minutes” segment jogged his memory. After looking at his calendar, he said that the meeting with the undercover investigator took place on June 3, 2014.

“The whole thing was a little bizarre,” he said. “60 Minutes” notified him ahead of the airing of the show, but he did not watch it online until he started getting phone calls from friends and relatives who had seen him on TV. He said that since the show aired, he’s also gotten nice messages from strangers, many of whom said, “God bless you.”

Herrmann said he doesn’t typically get inquiries like the one posed by the Global Witness investigator, who tried to convince him that he would not be violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act because Americans were not involved.

When the investigator asked Herrmann whether he knew someone else who could help, the lawyer was equally dismissive.

“I would not recommend it either,” he said. “Because those persons would be insulted.”

While none of the lawyers were retained to work for the fictitious official and Global Witness does not accuse them of breaking any laws, the other lawyers offered plenty of informal advice during their meetings with the fake adviser, according to the nonprofit’s report.

Sullivan & Worcester partner James Silkenat, who was president of the American Bar Association when he was secretly recorded by Global Witness, explained that one could create a company that owns another company, which in turn owns a third company that would own the property. This would “protect privacy as much as anything else,” said his partner Hugh Finnegan, who was also in the meeting, though not visible on the screen.

“We could provide you with the list of countries where the banking systems require less detail on ownership or source of funds,” he said, according to the report.

In a statement, Silkenat and Finnegan said the Global Witness report does not fully reflect what took place.

“Had the camera followed us immediately after the meeting, it would have shown us conferring and agreeing that we had each concluded that ‘Kayser’ was disreputable and that we would not deal with him again,” said the statement. (Kayser is the fake name that the Global Witness investigator used.) “In the context of these contrived circumstances, our conduct was wholly and entirely appropriate.”

In a letter forwarded to The Am Law Daily by Silkenat, New York University School of Law ethics professor Stephen Gillers wrote that lawyers have a responsibility to challenge their clients’ stories, but “a preliminary meeting with a prospective client … is ordinarily not the place to voice suspicions about what the prospective client has said.”

Gillers wrote his opinion in response to a request from Loeb & Loeb litigation partner Michael Zweig, according to his letter.

Mark Koplik, managing partner at Henderson & Koplik, was also interviewed by the undercover investigator. Koplik, who previously worked at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton and Debevoise & Plimpton, according to his website, was recorded telling the investigator that lawyers are members of a “privileged class” in the U.S.

“We make the laws, and when we do so, we make them in the way that’s advantageous to the lawyers,” he said. Koplik’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Practice Area(s):