Robert Mueller and team gave up million-dollar jobs to work on special counsel investigation into Russia

Ex-FBI Director and many of his staff abandoned lucrative private sector contracts with likes of Facebook, Apple and Sony to serve probe into Donald Trump campaign's alleged ties to Kremlin

Matt Zapotosky
Wednesday 09 August 2017 07:40 BST
Robert Mueller
Robert Mueller (AP)

Robert Mueller left a $3.4 million partner job in the white-shoe law firm WilmerHale, where he worked for clients such as Facebook, Apple, Sony and the NFL, to serve as the special counsel overseeing the law enforcement investigation into whether the Kremlin and the Trump campaign coordinated to impact the 2016 election, according to documents released on Monday.

Mueller's public financial disclosure - along with those of seven members of his team - was released after a request from The Washington Post. The document offers a glimpse into who the special counsel and the lawyers he has hired have worked for, and where they have made and invested their money.

They are likely to be closely scrutinised by allies of President Donald Trump, who has criticised Mueller and his team as having conflicts of interest.

The documents show that several lawyers on the team, particularly those who came from the private sector, left behind substantial salaries to work on the Russia case. James Quarles, who left WilmerHale with Mueller, drew more than $5.8 million from his partnership there. Jeannie Rhee, another partner, drew more than $2 million, and Aaron Zebley, who was Mueller's chief of staff at the FBI and also worked with him at WilmerHale, drew more than $1.4 million.

It is unclear precisely how much each is getting paid to work on the Russia investigation - the special counsel's office has declined to make its budget proposal public - though it is likely a far cry from their private sector work.

In addition to his firm income, Mueller drew tens of thousands of dollars from paid speaking engagements in recent years, talking to groups such as Goldman Sachs, Citi and Ford. For one speech, to the Mexican bank Banamex, he made $52,000.

Those on the team who had come from private practice represented a wide range of clients. Notably, Zebley represented Justin Cooper, a former Clinton aide, and Rhee represented the Clinton Foundation.

Trump has been highly critical of Mueller and his team, writing on Twitter that their investigation is the “single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history” and that the probe was being “led by some very bad and conflicted people!” He has noted particularly several team members' donations to Hillary Clinton and other Democrats: federal records show eight lawyers in the group have given to Democrats - five to Clinton's campaigns.

The president has asserted Mueller, a registered Republican, is also conflicted because he interviewed to be the FBI director, and he has a relationship with James Comey, who Trump fired from the post.

Comey's attorney has disputed Trump's characterisation of Comey and Mueller's relationship, and many lawyers and ethics experts say they can see no significant legal or ethical concerns with his team's giving.

Mueller, too, might feel he cannot consider the donations because Justice Department policies and federal law prohibit discriminating based on political affiliation when it comes to hiring for nonpolitical positions.

The investments listed for many of the team members are lengthy, but among those Mueller lists as belonging to a family trust is money in Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey Bezos owns The Washington Post in his personal capacity. The President has derisively labelled the news organisation the “Amazon Washington Post.”

Mueller's form indicates it was revised several times after Mueller made clarifications. Those who reviewed it noted on the form that Mueller was counselled on criminal conflicts of interest and standards of conduct, and they found no apparent conflicts of interest.

The forms are interesting in their own right, but they also reveal who on the team might be in leadership positions.

The forms are only required of those earning higher incomes. The Justice Department ethics office released just eight, for Mueller, Quarles, Rhee and Zebley, along with Andrew Weissmann, who had led the Justice Department's fraud section; Andrew Goldstein, who ran the public corruption unit in the Southern District of New York; Zainab Ahmad, an assistant US attorney in the Eastern District of New York specialising in terrorism cases; and Michael Dreeben, a Justice Department deputy solicitor general who has argued more than 100 cases before the Supreme Court.

Seeking to discredit those conducting an investigation is a familiar tactic: Democrats famously put Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr in the crosshairs during his examination of President Bill Clinton. And just as he has sought to raise questions about Mueller and his team personally, Trump has tried to limit what areas the investigators might explore.

Trump told the New York Times in a recent interview that he did not believe the special counsel should be permitted to inspect his and his family's finances - saying that would be “a violation,” though not indicating what action he might take in response.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein - who appointed Mueller and is supervising him because Attorney General Jeff Sessions is recused from the case - said on Fox News recently that Mueller's investigation was “not a fishing expedition,” and Mueller would need Rosenstein's approval to expand it.

“If he finds evidence of a crime that's within the scope of what Director Mueller and I have agreed is the appropriate scope of this investigation, then he can [investigate]. If it's something outside that scope, he needs to come to the acting attorney general, at this time me, for permission to expand his investigation,” Rosenstein said.

The Washington Post

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