U.S. Senate Democrats are demanding information from the Federal Trade Commission about any past entanglement with the acting U.S. attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, in connection with his past role as an adviser to a company the agency accused of scamming inventors out of millions of dollars.
During an oversight hearing Tuesday, FTC Chairman Joseph Simons committed to having his staff brief senators on the agency’s investigation of World Patent Marketing, an invention promotion business that was shut down over agency claims that it bilked customers and intimidated those who complained about the company. World Patent Marketing reached a settlement with the FTC in May that included a nearly $26 million judgment against the company.
Whitaker’s legal work in private practice has faced intense scrutiny since his rise to the top of the Justice Department following the ouster of Jeff Sessions. Six months after being finalized, the World Patent Marketing settlement has drawn significant attention. Whitaker, a former U.S. attorney in Iowa, served on the World Patent Marketing’s advisory board and described the company in 2014 as a “first-class organization.”
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, on Tuesday asked Simons whether Whitaker had been subpoenaed by the FTC. Simons, noting that the World Patent Marketing settlement predated his tenure—the former Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison partner joined the agency last year—said he has not “studied what subpoenas have been issued in that case.”
“The staff has all the details. It’s not a secret. They would be more than happy to provide a briefing,” Simons said.
Blumenthal cited media reporting that Whitaker allegedly once contacted a World Patent Marketing consumer to say there would be “serious civil and criminal consequences” if the past customer continued to post negative reviews about the company.
Simons said he was not personally aware of facts that would substantiate the report. ”My staff has the facts,” he said.
“You would agree with me, would you not, that that kind of statement would be improper?” Blumenthal asked.
“That’s troubling,” Simons said.
Whitaker has previously denied knowing about any fraudulent activity at the company. In his financial disclosure, he reported receiving $1,875 in legal fees from World Patent Marketing in the run-up to his Justice Department tenure.
A Justice Department spokesperson was not immediately reached for comment Tuesday.
“Acting attorney general Matt Whitaker has said he was not aware of any fraudulent activity. Any stories suggesting otherwise are false,” a Justice Department spokesperson told The Washington Post earlier this month in a spotlight about Whitaker’s ties to World Patent Marketing.
How long Whitaker will remain at the helm of Main Justice is unknown. President Trump hasn’t nominated a permanent replacement, and new members of Congress take their seats in January.
Meanwhile, Whitaker’s appointment as acting U.S. attorney general faces myriad court challenges. Challengers contend Whitaker, who was a chief of staff before being named acting attorney general, is unlawfully at the helm. The Justice Department issued a memo recently that concluded Whitaker’s appointment was legal.
Whitaker, before joining the Justice Department, was a critic of the special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, a probe he now oversees. As a paid contributor for CNN, he called for limiting the scope of the investigation and said the special counsel, Robert Mueller III, would be crossing a “red line” if his team probed the finances of Trump and his family. Whitaker received $15,000 in “consulting fees” for his CNN commentary, according to his financial disclosure.