The criminal defense lawyer nominated by President Obama to be the top federal prosecutor in New Jersey is declining to identify more than half of his private clients on government forms designed to help the public guard against potential conflicts of interests.
Paul J. Fishman, nominated to serve as the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, is citing the privacy interests of the clients - an exemption that is permitted under federal ethics laws, but that leaves prosecutors on an honor system to police their own conflicts, ethics watchdogs say.
Mr. Fishman provided the names of 29 clients on the government disclosure form, including a convicted former New Jersey municipal official, a health care company and the former girlfriend of New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine.
But he withheld the names of “approximately 37 confidential clients,[“] saying they cannot be named because they are involved in grand jury or other secret investigations.
“If this person is going to be able to exercise the law enforcement powers of the U.S. government, you want to make sure he doesn’t have any conflicts,” said Gregory Ogden, a law professor at Pepperdine University who has taught ethics.
“To some extent, you have to trust the guy’s ethical integrity and experience and balance that against the possible concern that he might not be as vigorous with people he’s represented.”
A person who answered the telephone at Mr. Fishman’s New York office at the Friedman Kaplan Seiler & Adelman LLP law firm said Mr. Fishman was not commenting publicly while his nomination is under consideration. White House spokesman Ben LaBolt said that if confirmed, Mr. Fishman won’t be involved in cases involving any of his former clients.
“Upon confirmation, as is standard practice for U.S. attorneys who previously worked in the private sector, Mr. Fishman will implement a screening mechanism that removes himself from matters that may be pending in the U.S. Attorney’s Office involving his former clients, including confidential clients,” Mr. LaBolt said.
Mr. Fishman reported more than $2.3 million in “law partnership income” since the start of 2008 on his ethics form. Although more than half of his client list remains secret, Mr. Fishman’s public list reveals involvement in several high-profile and politically sensitive cases prosecuted by the same office that he is seeking to run.
Mr. Fishman’s clients included:
• Thomas A. Greenwald, a former Far Hills, N.J., council member who pleaded guilty to laundering about $700,000 in loan-sharking and gambling proceeds;
• Alfred S. Teo Sr., a businessman who pleaded guilty in 2006 to insider trading and was sentenced to more than two years in prison in 2007;
• Richard Stadtmauer, the brother-in-law of convicted New Jersey developer Charles Kushner. Stadtmauer was sentenced to more than three years in prison earlier this year in a tax-fraud case.
In addition, Mr. Fishman represented Biomet Inc., a health care company that agreed to federal monitoring to avoid criminal prosecution in a kickback probe headed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey.
One of Mr. Fishman’s highest-profile cases in recent years was that of Carla Katz, the former girlfriend of Mr. Corzine, in a civil lawsuit involving her former role as an official of a union for state workers.
Both of New Jersey’s U.S. senators have pushed for Mr. Fishman’s nomination. In a letter to the White House, Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez and Frank R. Lautenberg wrote that Mr. Fishman “has the knowledge, expertise and judgment to protect the people of New Jersey in the years ahead.”
If confirmed, Mr. Fishman would replace Christopher J. Christie, a Republican appointee who is running for governor and has forged a reputation as a corruption-busting prosecutor. One New Jersey political analyst said public opinion on Mr. Fishman’s nomination has been split, not surprisingly, along Democratic and Republican party lines.
“I think the viewpoint among New Jerseyans of this office is that it has been shaped by Chris Christie, and his reputation as someone who was combating public corruption really shaped the view of what the U.S. attorney’s job is,” said Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University in New Jersey.
“I think that because of Mr. Fishman’s representation of clients who are perhaps on the other side of the room in those investigations, it has opened him up to some criticism that he will not be as aggressive.
“I think Democrats will say he’s qualified and that he will be aggressive, particularly when it comes to some of the white-collar crime,” she said. “But Republicans are critical of the nomination because they view the U.S. Attorney’s Office as one of the few entities in the state that can combat corruption.”
Supporters point out Mr. Fishman’s extensive courtroom experience as a federal prosecutor. A 1982 Harvard Law School graduate, he served a chief for the Criminal Division and chief of narcotics in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey, including years in which it was headed by Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. From 1994 to 1997, Mr. Fishman worked as a senior adviser to Attorney General Janet Reno.
Michael Chertoff, secretary of homeland security under President George W. Bush, said that he’s known Mr. Fishman for more than 20 years and that he served as a deputy when Mr. Chertoff was U.S. attorney in New Jersey.
“I think he has outstanding credentials and experience for the post,” Mr. Chertoff wrote in an e-mail message to The Washington Times.
Asked whether Mr. Fishman would be as aggressive on public corruption as Mr. Christie, Mr. Chertoff said, “Absolutely, yes. He was very focused on these cases when he was my first assistant.”
Mr. Fishman also was an adviser to Mr. Obama’s presidential transition team that reviewed Justice Department operations.
As for Mr. Fishman’s confidential clients, Monroe H. Freedman, the former dean of Hofstra University’s law school, said that if confirmed, Mr. Fishman should call for an outside lawyer to handle cases involving his former clients.
Private lawyer Richard E. Flamm, who has written a book on lawyer conflicts of interest, said that although he’s not familiar with Mr. Fishman’s situation, law firms often face instances in which a conflict arises that a lawyer cannot ethically disclose.
“Some firms decline to undertake the representation in this instance; others probably undertake the representation and cross their fingers that the conflict goes undetected,” he said.