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Former DOJ lawyer sentenced for obstruction

A former U.S. Justice Department lawyer was sentenced in San Francisco Wednesday to two years and six months in prison for crimes related to stealing and trying to sell sealed federal whistleblower lawsuits.

Jeffrey Wertkin, 41, of Washington, D.C., worked in the Justice Department’s civil fraud division from 2010 to 2016, specializing in whistleblower cases in which an individual alleges illegal conduct within an organization or company.

He left the Justice Department in 2016 to work for a private law firm, Akin Gump, in Washington D.C.

In a plea agreement in November, Wertkin admitted that as he was leaving the government, he stole copies of sealed whistleblower lawsuits that were not assigned to him.

At first, Wertkin used the documents to try to solicit the targeted companies to become clients of the law firm. Later, he admitted, he tried to sell two of the stolen lawsuits to the companies being sued.

In one of those cases, Wertkin called the general counsel of an unidentified company headquartered in Sunnyvale under an assumed name, offered to sell a copy of a sealed lawsuit against the company, and mailed a copy of the cover page of the lawsuit as proof that he had it.

The general counsel then called the FBI, according to court documents. In phone calls recorded by the FBI, Wertkin negotiated to sell the document for $310,000.

He then flew to the Bay Area with the lawsuit and, wearing a wig and sunglasses, was arrested in a Sunnyvale hotel lobby as he handed the document to an undercover FBI agent on Jan. 31, 2017.

Wertkin admitted in his plea agreement that after being freed on a $750,000 bond following his arrest, he returned to his Washington office and tried to destroy copies of most of the stolen documents.

Wertkin pleaded guilty in November to two counts of obstruction of justice for stealing and seeking to sell stolen lawsuits to the Sunnyvale company and a second corporation in Oregon. He also pleaded guilty to a third count of transporting stolen property across state lines in the case of the lawsuit concerning the Sunnyvale company.

Prosecutors said in a sentencing brief that Wertkin copied and stole at least 40 sealed lawsuits and said the case was “one of the most disturbing cases of public corruption ever prosecuted in the Northern District of California.” Defense attorney Cristina Arguedas said in a brief that Wertkin’s actions were an aberration in an otherwise “honorable and law-abiding life” and stemmed from undiagnosed anxiety and depression, exacerbated by his fear of not meeting business expectations at his law firm job.

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