Should the FBI be led by a lawyer who spent most of his career defending white collar defendants, including a major Swiss bank accused of laundering money for terrorists?
That is the central question that the Senate Judiciary Committee should focus on Wednesday (July 12) when it considers Donald Trump’s nomination of Christopher A. Wray, to replace James B. Comey.
No other FBI director has a background like that of Wray. The others all spent their careers pursuing criminals or presiding over trials as judges. And while Wray does have some experience as a federal prosecutor — a record that itself raises questions about his fitness to run the FBI — his own bio shows defending accused criminals, not pursuing them, has been the focus of his professional life.
Wray has attracted much bipartisan support. His colleagues in the legal profession, especially those who served with him at the Justice Department during the George W. Bush administration, are quoted favorably about him. He has been called “a fine lawyer and public servant,” “smart, serious, and professional,” a “super smart, a great lawyer and highly experienced,” and “respectable.” Comey has called Wray a “total pro.”
All this makes it likely that Wray may be treated rather gently by the US Senate Judiciary Committee at his confirmation hearing.
This would be unfortunate. The Senate should ask serious questions about Wray’s fitness to be FBI director.
Wray is part of the incredibly incestuous professional networks that operate at the higher echelons of the federal criminal justice system, networks that cut deals and keep secrets, including deals and secrets that have contributed mightily to Donald Trump’s rise to the Presidency.
Questions senators should ask
Issues that we think our Senators should examine include:
- Wray’s Russian client conflicts deserve scrutiny considering Trump’s own Russian connections. As a lawyer at King & Spaulding, the giant Atlanta-based law firm that has been Wray’s home base since the 1990s, he represented Russian companies Gazprom and Rosneft. The Guardian discovered that in January Wray deleted a Russia-related line from his King & Spaulding website bio. The deleted language stated that Wray had represented unnamed American “energy company executive in a criminal investigation by Russian authorities.” Why did Wray remove that line?
- Wray’s long-standing defense work for big-ticket white collar criminals, banksters and fraudsters, especially during the period from 2005 to 2017 after he left the Justice Department and rejoined King & Spaulding. Virtually every Justice Department criminal lawyer who moves in and out of the private sector is vulnerable to this “revolving door” criticism. Wray’s choice of clients, however, is especially troubling.
- Wray’s representation of Credit Suisse in money laundering involving Iran, a major sponsor of terrorist organizations.
- What was his role in approving the Bush-era rules for interrogating so-called “non-combatants” and the gathering of metadata on domestic communications by the National Security Agency?
- Wray’s involvement in the legal vetting and management of Bush-era interrogation and imprisonment programs while he was a senior Justice Department official from May 2001 to February 2005, especially after he became acting Assistant Attorney General in February 2003, in charge of the Criminal Division.
- Wray’s “less-than-truthful” answers — according to Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., — to the Senate Judiciary’s questions back in 2004? These include questions about the murder of a detainee held by the Central Intelligence Agency. Wray testified that he learned of this from news reports, but documents show he was officially informed long before the news broke.
- What of his role as one of those overseeing the Enron Task Force, which has been criticized for prosecutorial excesses, resulting in premature “victories” that were reversed on appeal.
- What of Wray’s role in Bridgegate, in which Wray was a defense attorney and “chief custodian of missing cell phones” for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, whose administration closed George Washington Bridge traffic lanes to punish a mayor who did not support Christie’s election to a second term. Wray’s relationship Christie dates to the early 2000s, when Christie got himself appointed US attorney by becoming a big bundler of campaign contributions for George W. Bush in New Jersey.
How does Wray stack up?
Wray’s background and experience are unlike that of the seven FBI Directors who preceded him. While the others all had heavyweight law enforcement backgrounds, much of Wray’s career that has been devoted to defending bankers and corporate executives accused of wrongdoing.
If his nomination is approved, Wray would easily become the most patrician FBI Director.
Wray is strikingly different from most of his FBI predecessors. Most of them had far more law enforcement and military experience. They were also far more middle-class, Midwestern, public-schooled and just plain down to earth. Even the Princeton- educated Robert S. Mueller III is an ex-Marine.
The nominee is the son of Cecil Wray Jr., a senior partner at the Wall Street law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton. The father graduated from Vanderbilt and Yale Law. His mother, Gilda Gates Wray, graduated from Smith College and Columbia University and she helped run the Cosmopolitan Club, the Junior League, and several private foundations. Christopher’s maternal grandfather was another Debevoise & Plimpton partner. His maternal grandmother also practiced law on Wall Street. They divided the rest of their time between Park Avenue and an estate in the Hamptons on Long Island.
Wray then joined King & Spaulding’s Atlanta office. He spent his first four years with the firm’s fast-growing white-collar defense group, an unusual career move for someone expected to lead America’s premier federal investigative agency whose duties include pursuing white collar criminals.
In 1997 Wray joined the US Attorney’s office in Atlanta as an assistant prosecutor, reporting to Sally Yates, another former King & Spaulding attorney who later became acting attorney general. (Trump fired Yates after she declined to enforce an executive order banning people from seven predominantly Muslim countries because Yates believed it violated our Constitution.)
Wray donated to the presidential campaigns of Republicans John McCain ($4,600) in 2008 and Mitt Romney ($5,000) in 2012.
Another distinctive Wray characteristic is his extraordinary professional network—a wide range of past and present senior officials at Justice, the FBI, federal courts and other federal agencies, plus the handful of influential Wall Street and K Street law firms where these folks have tended to devolve. The ways in which this network protects corrupt executives and bankers from prosecution is the subject of "The Chickenshit Club: Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives," a new book by ProPublica reporter Jesse Eisinger.
The old boys club
Indeed, as our analysis underscores, most of the key day-to-day decisions in the entire US criminal justice system are now being made by an incestuous network of just a few hundred people that includes Wray. This network may create paralyzing conflicts for Wray if he becomes FBI director.
But what Senators must examine in depth is Wray’s role in defending a bank that court records show was aggressively helping Iran develop nuclear weapons.
Wray signed a deferred prosecution agreement on behalf of his client. Such agreements are a sophisticated technique used by prosecutors to let those engaged in unlawful conduct go on their way provided they promise not to do again that which they were accused of, but not actually tried for doing.
In December 2009 Attorney General Eric Holder said: “the criminal misconduct perpetrated by Credit Suisse, in this case, is simply astounding.” He said the bank “created a ‘how-to’ book on committing a crime” and “robbed our system of the legitimacy that is fundamental to its success”
Credit Suisse employees systematically stripped the identities of Iranian banks from its records, enabling funds to be transferred to the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran and the Aerospace Industries Organization, entities involved in the production of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
Credit Suisse advised Iranian banks including Bank Melli and Bank Saderat on how to hide their identities and send more than a billion dollars through New York banks, court records show.
Credit Suisse was fined $536 million for violating American sanctions against Iran. Court documents say Credit Suisse systematically hid the identity of its Iranian clients when moving millions of dollars on their behalf.
Surely Senators must ask Wray how a lawyer who represented banks working to help Iran obtain nuclear weapons and who signed a deferred prosecution agreement for decades of such illegal conduct can be fit to lead America’s premier law enforcement agency.