Lawyer in Plea Deal Was Edwards Bundler
Though his former law firm came under indictment more than a year ago and he himself appeared likely to face criminal charges, prominent trial lawyer William S. Lerach slipped past the vetting of John Edwards' presidential campaign and was permitted to raise large amounts of money for the Democrat's 2008 bid.
Lerach, his family and members of his new law Lerach Coughlin law firm accounted for nearly $78,000 in donations to Edwards' campaign in the first half of this year, making the trial lawyer one of the North Carolina Democrat's leading "bundlers" of contributions.
In the midst of that fundraising, Lerach negotiated behind the scenes for a plea deal that was consummated on Tuesday and will send him to federal prison for at least 12 months on a conspiracy charge involving his past legal work as partner in the Milberg Weiss law firm.
Through it all, Edwards stood by his fellow trial lawyer and even took an action this spring that was helpful to his longtime financial supporter in a government matter.
In May, Edwards used the bully pulpit of his presidential campaign to publicly pressure the Securities and Exchange Commission not to oppose Lerach's new law firm in a Supreme Court case over whether Lerach's lawsuits could proceed against banks on behalf of investors who lost millions in the collapse of energy giant Enron.
"The question for all Americans is whether their government will be on the side of those big banks or regular families," Edwards said in a statement released by his presidential campaign that was trumpeted on the Web site of Lerach's law firm.
All of this transpired while Edwards campaigned against what he calls a "corroded and corrupt" Washington system in which politicians raise money from special interests who then seek their help on government matters. To make his point, Edwards campaign is refusing any donations from lobbyists registered in Washington.
The latest salvo on that theme came Tuesday -- the day of Lerach's plea deal -- when top Edwards' aide Joe Trippi publicly criticized rival Hillary Clinton's campaign for hosting a fundraiser targeting companies and lobbyists seeking the government's multibillion dollar business.
"Too many in office have fallen under the spell of campaign money at any cost -- and do not see that when they defend the system, they are protecting those that have rigged the game that puts corporate profits ahead of the interests of working Americans," Trippi wrote.
Trippi's attack made no mention of Lerach, the Edwards' bundler, or the fact that Lerach had just reached a plea deal in a scheme prosecutors alleged involved kickback payments to plaintiffs in class action lawsuits he and his former law firm brought.
Lerach and his former law partner Melvyn I. Weiss were notified in the summer of 2005 that they had become targets in that lengthy criminal investigation, meaning they were likely to be indicted, according to lawyers involved in the case.
Court papers say that they employed the scheme for more than two decades in 150 cases that brought their firm more than $200 million in fees.
Milberg Weiss, the New York based law firm where Lerach served as a partner until a bitter parting in 2004, was indicted on conspiracy, mail fraud and money laundering charges in May 2006. Lerach and Weiss were not charged at that time but they were notified by federal prosecutors in Los Angeles that they continued to be the targets of their investigation. The firm is fighting the charges. Weiss himself has not been charged with a crime and maintains his innocence.
Political donations by Lerach and his partners, as well as a former expert witness named John Torkelson, came under investigators' scrutiny but the government has not filed criminal charges alleging they broke election laws.
In Lerach's Tuesday agreement to plead guilty to a conspiracy charge, Justice Department lawyers agreed not to prosecute him over "election, campaign, or other political contributions" related to the fees he and the firm collected as part of the alleged kickback scheme with plaintiffs and expert witnesses including Torkelson.
Edwards campaign said it donated Lerach's personal donations to charity yesterday after his guilty plea, but isn't returning the money he raised from others.
As for the statement Edwards issued favorable to Lerach's lawsuits earlier this year, Edwards spokesoman Colleen Murray said: "This position is consistent with John Edwards' longstanding support for protecting the retirement savings of middle class families and shared by many others, including the New York Times editorial page, Securities and Exchange Commission, Senate Banking Committee Chair Chris Dodd, and a coalition of consumer groups, to name a few."
Lerach is the latest bundler in the 2008 race whose background has raised questions about how carefully campaigns are vetting those who collect their checks.
Hillary Clinton's campaign earlier this month agreed to give back all $850,000 raised by bundler Norman Hsu after it was learned he had been a fugitive in a 15-year-old criminal case in California.
And Edwards already has faced question about another trial lawyer who raised money from him. Attorney Geoffrey Feiger was indicted on federal charges he conspired to route more than $125,000 in illegal contributions to Edwards' 2004 White House bid .Feiger, a trial lawyer who became famous for representing Dr. Jack Kevorkian during his assisted suicide controversy, has pleaded not guilty. Edwards' campaign said it knew nothing about the alleged scheme and cooperated with the Justice Department. But the campaign has declined to refund the donations in question, choosing instead to wait for the outcome of Feiger's trial to avoid influencing jurors.
"From Day One, the campaign has taken their lead from and cooperated fully with the Department of Justice," spokesman Eric Schultz told The Washington Post in an email earlier this month. "Once this prosecution concludes, if Geoffrey Feiger is found guilty, the campaign will donate all the money is question to charity."
--John Solomon and Carrie Johnson
September 19, 2007; 12:40 PM ET
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