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After failing to criminally prosecute any of the financial firms responsible for the market collapse in 2008, former Attorney General Eric Holder is returning to Covington & Burling, a corporate law firm known for serving Wall Street clients.
The move completes one of the more troubling trips through the revolving door for a cabinet secretary. Holder worked at Covington from 2001 right up to being sworn in as attorney general in Feburary 2009. And Covington literally kept an office empty for him, awaiting his return.
The Covington & Burling client list has included four of the largest banks, including Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo. Lobbying records show that Wells Fargo is still a client of Covington. Covington recently represented Citigroup over a civil lawsuit relating to the bank’s role in Libor manipulation.
Covington was also deeply involved with a company known as MERS, which was later responsible for falsifying mortgage documents on an industrial scale. “Court records show that Covington, in the late 1990s, provided legal opinion letters needed to create MERS on behalf of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and several other large banks,” according to an investigation by Reuters.
The Department of Justice under Holder not only failed to pursue criminal prosecutions of the banks responsible for the mortage meltdown, but in fact de-prioritized investigations of mortgage fraud, making it the “lowest-ranked criminal threat,” according to an inspector general report.
For insiders, the Holder decision to return to Covington was never a mystery. Timothy Hester, the chairman of Covington, told the National Law Journal that Holder’s return to the firm had been “a project” of his ever since Holder left to the join the administration in 2009. When the firm moved to a new building last year, it kept an 11th-story corner office reserved for Holder.
James Garland, Holder’s former deputy chief of staff, who rejoined Covington in 2010, told the Law Journal that when Covington’s partners gathered to welcome Holder back four weeks ago, “He was so busy giving people hugs and shaking hands.”
As Covington prepared for Holder’s return, the firm continued to represent clients before the Department of Justice. For instance, Covington negotiatedwith the department on behalf of GlaxoSmithKline for a plea agreement in 2010.
Holder’s critics charge that he made a career out of institutionalizing “Too Big to Prosecute” rules within the department. In 1999, as a deputy attorney general, Holder authored a memo arguing that officials should consider the “collateral consequences” when prosecuting corporate crimes. In 2012, Holder’s enforcement chief, Lanny Breuer, admitted during a speech to the New York City Bar Association that the department may go easy on certain corporate criminals if they believe prosecutions may disrupt financial markets or cause layoffs. “In some cases, the health of an industry or the markets are a real factor,” Breuer said.
Rather than face accountability for their failures, the incentive structure of modern Washington is designed to reward both men. Breuer left the department in 2013 to rejoin Covington. Holder is set to become among the highest-earning partners at the firm, with compensation in the seven or eight figures.