Russia v Bank of New York: How weak can a case get?

Russia’s $22.5 billion case against the Bank of New York Mellon now appears to hinge upon a stray misstatement contained in a continuing legal education outline written by a lawyer who’s never been involved in the case, and who was simply repeating a misstatement contained in a government press release that was later amended to delete the misstatement due to its inaccuracy.

This takes a little while to explain, but I really think it’s worth the trouble. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Last week, I explained here that Manhattan federal prosecutors seemed to have blown a massive hole in the Russian Federal Customs Service’s exceedingly unusual $22.5 billion civil RICO case against the Bank of New York Mellon (BK), a case that, notwithstanding its purported reliance on U.S. law, Russia has chosen to file in a commercial court in Moscow, known as an arbitrazh court.

As explained in that earlier post, Russia’s lead lawyer, a Miami-based airplane-crash lawyer named Steven C. Marks of Podhurst Orseck, has predicated his case in large part on the premise that when Bank of New York entered into a non-prosecution agreement in Nov. 2005, it admitted criminal responsibility for the actions of rogue vice president Lucy Edwards in the late 1990s. Edwards pled guilty in 2000 to having helped Russian citizens illegally wire transfer their money out of that country via Bank of New York accounts.

This July, however, the federal prosecutors office that had investigated the bank refuted Marks’ claim, explaining that the bank had never admitted “criminal culpability.” (The clarification came in this letter, which I published last week.)

Although nothing in the nonprosecution agreement itself had ever said that the bank admitted criminal responsibility for Edwards’ conduct, a poorly-written government press release that accompanied the nonprosecution agreement did leave that misimpression, stating that the bank had “admitted its criminal conduct.” It did so in part because it was actually reporting the resolution of two unrelated probes tied to different Bank of New York branches. In the view of the prosecutors, the bank was, in fact, admitting criminal responsibility for certain wrongdoing at a branch on Long Island (which had nothing to do with Russia), but not for what Lucy Edwards had done, which related to a branch in Manhattan.)

In August of this year, federal prosecutors further tried to clarify the situation by issuing an amended version of the original press release, deleting from it the language about the bank having “admitted its criminal conduct” that Marks had repeatedly quoted in statements to the press, bank stock analysts, and the court. The amended release also made clear that certain other language in the release — including language quoted by Russia’s retained expert Alan Dershowitz in his affidavit in the case — actually related to the Long Island probe, not the Lucy Edwards matter. I described that situation in this feature story for the Sept, 29 issue of Fortune. (As reported there, Dershowitz never responded to my inquiries about the apparent mistake, and Marks’s comment was cryptic and hard to characterize; you can read it for yourself there.)

On Monday of this week, at the resumption of a pretrial hearing in the case, two of the bank’s key experts testified. One of them, former U.S. attorney general Richard Thornburgh, addressed the meaning of the nonprosecution agreement, the government press release, the press release’s amendment, and the July letter from the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office stating that the bank had never admitted criminal culpability in connection with Edwards’ conduct. Thornburgh, now a partner at the K&L Gates law firm, testified that the bank had never been charged with criminal conduct, let alone admitted any.

If Russia had wanted to cross-examine Thornburgh, it could have, of course. Instead, to the amazement of the bank’s lawyers, Russia sent no representatives at all to the long-scheduled hearing, as I reported here. Instead, its lawyers simply sent a fax to the judge that morning asking for an adjournment, explaining that all of its lawyers were too busy to attend. Though Marks was checked in at his Moscow hotel, according to what a hotel receptionist told me, and had apparently flown to Russia solely to attend that hearing, he didn’t show up. The judge rejected the faxed request and took testimony anyway — it was, after all, the third time Thornburgh and the other expert, Greg Joseph, had made the trip to Russia hoping to testify. At the end of the day the judge adjourned the hearing until Nov. 13.

Marks never returned a Monday voicemail or email seeking comment about why none of Russia’s lawyers attended, and Russia’s public relations firm, the Miami office of Burson Marsteller, has not yet responded to the same question, which I posed to it yesterday at about 12:30 pm.

What Burson Marsteller did do yesterday, however, was issue this statement, which does not explain or even allude to the fact that its client failed to show up. The statement also does not explain or even allude to the recently revealed July letter from the Manhattan prosecutors office — denying that the bank ever admitted criminal culpability — that, as I’ve said, seems to blow a massive hole in its case. Instead, Burson Marsteller’s statement reveals how Russia purportedly would cross-examine Thornburgh in the event that the bank agrees to schlep him back to Russia at some time in the future (and assuming, of course, that Russia’s lawyers aren’t still too busy with other matters to attend).

Here’s how Russia purportedly would undermine Thornburgh’s credibility, according to Burson Marsteller: “He and/or his firm stated the following in an article written with his assistance: ‘the Non-Prosecution Agreement relates to BNY’s responsibility for crimes involving fraud and money laundering, as well as BNY’s failure to comply with mandatory reporting obligations… As part of the non-prosecution agreement, BNY agreed to… admit to its criminal conduct.'”

I was familiar with the “article” Burson Marsteller was referring to, since Marks had cited it prominently in a document called “Case Summary for the Press,” which he sent to me when I first started looking into the case. (The article was highlighted in paragraph two of Marks’s five-page press document; paragraph one had been devoted to the subsequently deleted language from the government press release.)

In conversations with me, Marks usually referred to this document as “the Thornburgh memo,” and the digital file he sent me of it was labeled “Thornb article.” All it really is, however, is this Continuing Legal Education document, written by Barry Hartman, who, like Thornburgh, is a partner at K&L Gates, which is a firm of 1,235 lawyers and 243 partners, according to The American Lawyer. (Hartman declined to comment for this story. Suffice it to say that I am aware of no public record anywhere suggesting that Hartman has ever personally represented the Bank of New York in any matter whatsoever. A different law firm entirely, Sullivan & Cromwell, represented the bank in connection with its non-prosecution agreement in 2005.)

In the section of Hartman’s presentation relating to non-prosecution agreements, he lists 12 examples, including the Bank of New York’s, and gives a short, blurb-like summary of each. Footnotes explain the sources of Hartman’s information. For the Bank of New York entry (see page 15) Hartman’s footnote (footnote 24) lists his sole source of information as — you guessed it — the government’s Nov, 8, 2005 press release that was, in August of this year, amended to delete the language that Russia and Burson Marsteller are still trying to draw our attention to.

That leaves one final question. Why do Russia, Burson Marsteller, and Marks think that Thornburgh had anything to do with Hartman’s CLE outline? I asked Marks that question some weeks back, and he drew my attention to footnote 1 of the document (page 2) in which Hartman acknowledges that he’s made use of a CLE outline Thornburgh wrote on the subject of internal corporate investigations. What’s that got to do with anything? Probably nothing at all, since, as is apparent from the title page, Hartman’s talk had two parts: part one was about internal corporate investigations, and part two was about nonprosecution agreements. Thornburgh’s outline was pertinent to part one.

But Marks saw it differently when he emailed me on Sept. 2: “Presumably, before his partner put his name on the article, he showed it to him and Mr. Thornburgh explicitly or at least implicitly agreed to the contents. For all we know, his important contribution concerned that very section,” Marks wrote, referring to the part about the Bank of New York’s nonprosecution agreement, whose source had been explicitly identified as the government’s later corrected press release.

Is this the stuff that $22.5 billion lawsuits are made of?

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