A veteran federal prosecutor whose specialty is getting witnesses to rat out their friends, colleagues and bosses — and who brought down Vincent “the Chin” Gigante — has joined the team of the special counsel investigating President Trump.
Andrew Weissmann is perhaps best known for the investigation into the Enron company and for organized crime cases in Brooklyn — which all depended heavily on getting uncooperative witnesses to spill their guts.
In 1997, he and trial partner George Stamboulidis brought down Gigante, one of the country’s most powerful mob bosses, with the help of turncoat witnesses.
“We cut our teeth in the organized crime section,” Stamboulidis, now in private practice, told Reuters.
“And the only way you can make those cases is to get people to cooperate, even when the oath of Omerta was strong and in full play,” he said, referring to the mob’s code of silence.
Securing the cooperation of people close to Trump, many of whom have been retaining their own lawyers, could be important for Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian meddling in the election, possible ties between Team Trump and the Kremlin and whether Trump himself has sought to obstruct justice.
The president has flatly denied allegations of both collusion and obstruction, and has repeatedly slammed the probe as ‘fake news” and a “witch hunt.”
“Flipping” witnesses is a common, although not always successful, tactic in criminal prosecutions.
Robert Ray, who succeeded Kenneth Starr as the independent counsel examining former President Bill Clinton, noted that Trump’s fired former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, has already offered through his lawyer to testify before Congress in exchange for immunity, suggesting potential willingness to cooperate as a witness.
“It would seem to me the time is now to make some decisions about what you have and what leverage can be applied to get the things you don’t have,” Ray said, referring to Mueller’s team.
Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and others close to the president already have hired their own lawyers to help navigate Mueller’s expanding probe and ongoing congressional investigations.
Kathryn Ruemmler, who served as White House counsel under President Obama, said Weissmann was willing to take risks to secure witness testimony that other prosecutors might not.
She worked with Weissmann on the Justice Department’s Enron task force that investigated the massive corporate fraud that led to the company’s 2001 collapse.
Ruemmler recalled that Weissmann had a hunch that former Enron treasurer Ben Glisan would be willing to talk despite already having pleaded guilty without agreeing to cooperate.
So Weissmann had US marshals bring Glisan before the grand jury from prison, Ruemmler said.
Other prosecutors might have feared Glisan’s testimony could contradict their theory of the case, Ruemmler said, but Weissmann’s gamble paid off when the former executive became a key witness.
“He’s not afraid to lose, and that is sometimes an unusual quality,” Ruemmler said of Weissmann, who headed the Justice Department’s criminal fraud section before joining Mueller’s team last month.
Mueller has several other highly experienced lawyers on his team, including US Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben.
Trump has also been building a legal team led by New York lawyer Marc Kasowitz, with veteran Washington defense lawyer John Dowd recently coming aboard.