Hunton & Williams stood to be the channel for $2 million in monthly subcontractor payments as part of a plan to discredit anti-corporate critics, according to e-mails that are drawing intense scrutiny of the law firm.
The firm hoped to build a lucrative practice around investigating critics such as U.S. Chamber Watch and WikiLeaks, and it worked with three private security companies in a partnership they called “Team Themis,” the e-mails say. Lawyers saw “potential for huge gains” as a result of liberal anger, one security employee wrote in an e-mail.
The e-mails — which are publicly available online — have been burning up liberal blogs since they were posted in recent days. Hackers who collectively call themselves “Anonymous” say the more than 71,000 e-mails are internal discussions involving the private security companies and, in hundreds of the e-mails, Hunton & Williams.
A review of the e-mails suggests how profitable Hunton & Williams thought the business could be. Partners at the firm wanted to do work for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Bank of America and at least one other entity.
An employee of one subcontractor, Palantir Technologies, visited Hunton & Williams’ office in Washington on Nov. 30 and, according to an e-mail he wrote the next day, came away optimistic about the business opportunity.
“They still think that this team (H&W, Themis) has potential for huge gains in this market especially since ‘the results of the election made some people angry,’” wrote the employee, Matthew Steckman. He added, “god I love these guys.”
Several messages describe a proposal in which the law firm, at the suggestion of partners John Woods and Richard Wyatt Jr., would pay $2 million a month for six months to the three subcontractors. It’s not clear what the firm’s income was to have been.
“According to John while 2mill was more than they expected it was not ‘Dead on Arrival’ and Richard is looking to push that number to the Chamber,” Steckman wrote Dec. 1, in apparent references to Woods and Wyatt. He added that once the team completed a “Phase I,” then they will brief the Chamber on the results “to get them to pony up the cash for Phase II.”
The deal never happened, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The organization said in a statement that it knew nothing of the proposals and never made any payments for them. “No money, for any purpose, was paid to any of those three private security firms by the Chamber, or by anyone on behalf of the Chamber, including Hunton and Williams,” it said.
Some of the proposals developed by Team Themis were unusual. One idea, according to the liberal Think Progress blog, was to leak a forged document to a critic, who would then be shown to be untrustworthy.
Eleanor Kerlow, a spokeswoman for the Richmond, Va.-based Hunton & Williams, said the firm and its lawyers have no comment on the e-mails. The Chamber is a long-time client of the law firm; the late Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell Jr. once advised the Chamber as a Hunton & Williams partner.
Woods, a partner in Hunton & Williams’ Washington office who specializes in internal investigations, was at the center of the firm’s Chamber-related project, the e-mails say. One security company employee, Patrick Ryan of Berico Technologies, read Woods’ online profile and then e-mailed a colleague, “Sounds like he has a very solid background in the type of work we'll be doing.”
In a Nov. 8 e-mail to colleagues, Ryan described a conversation he had with Woods about the internal dynamics at Hunton & Williams. Wyatt, he wrote, “is very excited about potential, but knows he may end up covering initial upfront costs, so needs to be comfortable with what end-product will look like.” Ryan writes that Wyatt cancelled a scheduled trip in order to “deep dive into this proposal.”
The team of subcontractors and Hunton & Williams lawyers held several in-person or phone meetings during October and November, allowing the lawyers to give feedback on the work thus far, the e-mails say. In a Nov. 29 e-mail, Berico employee Sam Kremin writes that Hunton & Williams requested what Kremin called “mock intel reports.”
The work was consuming, wrote Aaron Barr, chief executive of the security company HBGary. “I have been sucked up for the last, seems like almost 2 weeks working the law firm deal. The potential is huge for us,” he wrote on Nov. 16. “We still need to close it, so I am spending most of my time making sure we blow them away and get the funding.”
It’s not clear when the deal with the Chamber finally fell through, but there were other opportunities to come, the e-mails say.
On Dec. 2, Woods e-mailed Team Themis with the subject line “URGENT — OPPORTUNITY”; he and Wyatt were getting ready to meet with a “large US Bank,” later revealed as Bank of America. The anti-secrecy Web site WikiLeaks reportedly has a cache of internal Bank of America documents.
“We want to sell this team as part of what we are talking about. I need a favor. I need five to six slides on Wikileaks — who they are, how they operate and how this group may help this bank. Please advise if you can help get me something ASAP,” Woods wrote.
Later in the day, Steckman wrote to his colleagues about the opportunity. “They are pitching the bank to retain them for an internal investigation around wikileaks. They basically want to sue them to put an injunction on releasing any data,” he wrote.
Steckman added that the Justice Department called Bank of America’s general counsel and “told them to hire Hunton and Williams, specifically to hire Richard Wyatt who I'm beginning to think is the emperor.” A Justice Department spokeswoman had no comment. In 2008, when Wyatt joined Hunton & Williams, legal recruiters told Legal Times that he had been among the highest-paid D.C. partners at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. He is co-chair of litigation at Hunton & Williams.
Almost two months after the Bank of America opportunity, on Jan. 26, Barr, of HBGary, e-mailed Woods. He wrote that he had new information about one group, including “communications infrastructure as well as key players by name.”
“I have a client that may be interested,” Woods replied. He added that, “pursuant to a mandate from my client,” Hunton & Williams was working through a consulting company, Booz Allen Hamilton, “on this type of activity.” He told Barr to expect a call.
Other Hunton & Williams partners mentioned in the e-mails are David Lashway and Robert Quackenboss, both of the firm’s Washington office. In a Nov. 23 e-mail, Woods described Quakenboss as the law firm’s main contact with the Chamber — “our key client contact operationally, and he will be called upon to explain to a different group what you all will actually be doing,” Woods told Kremin.
Criticism of the law firm has been withering on liberal blogs. Glenn Greenwald, a lawyer who writes for Salon.com, wrote in a blog post Tuesday that Hunton & Williams has certain ethical obligations to the public.
“At the very least, the spirit — if not the letter — of those obligations is being seriously breached by a lawyer who appears to be at the center of these kinds of pernicious, lawless plots and then refuses to account to the public for what he did,” Greenwald wrote.