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March 25, 2009 11:26 PM

EXCLUSIVE: Ex-DHS Secretary Chertoff Joins Covington

Posted by Brian Baxter

Chertoff_M_hi-res The Am Law Daily learned late Wednesday that Covington & Burling has added a big name to its white-collar defense and investigations practice group--former Department of Homeland Security secretary and federal appellate court judge Michael Chertoff.

"Practicing law is like riding a bicycle, it comes back pretty quickly," says the 55-year-old Chertoff, who tells The Am Law Daily that he joined the firm's Washington, D.C., office earlier this week.

"I'm really looking forward to coming back as a working lawyer, not just as a rainmaker," he says. "And while it's been a bit of a transition [this week], I'm happy to be doing real legal work as I genuinely love being a lawyer. So I'm here and ready for action."

Chertoff boasts an almost unrivaled legal resume.

After graduating magna cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1978, he clerked for former U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, Jr. Chertoff then spent nearly four years at Latham & Watkins before leaving the firm in the mid-eighties to work as an assistant U.S. attorney in Manhattan under Rudolph Giuliani. There, the young prosecutor cut his teeth on political corruption and organized crime cases, including the landmark mafia Commission trial.

That experience would prove vital when President George H.W. Bush appointed Chertoff to succeed current U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, Jr., as U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey in 1990. As U.S. attorney, Chertoff personally prosecuted the securities fraud trial of Eddie Antar, better known to tri-state area residents as the cofounder of discount electronics retailer Crazy Eddie.

When Bush was voted out of office in 1993, Chertoff was the only U.S. attorney in the country not immediately replaced by the incoming Clinton administration.

In May 1994 Chertoff returned to private practice, rejoining Latham, where he opened the firm's Newark office and headed its white-collar defense group. While with the firm, Chertoff served as special counsel to a Senate committee tasked with the Whitewater investigation of the Clintons.

Chertoff stayed at Latham until May 2001, when President George W. Bush asked him to head the Justice Department's criminal division. At Justice, Chertoff had a prominent role in drafting the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001. He also led prosecutions of suspected terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui and now-defunct accounting firm Arthur Andersen for allegedly destroying documents after the collapse of Enron. (The Supreme Court later overturned the accounting firm's conviction.)

Chertoff demurred when asked whether he considered returning to Latham again after resigning his DHS post on January 21.

"I did have a number of conversations with some firms that I don't really want to get into, but [going to] Covington was an easy choice," says Chertoff, citing his friendship with several current and former Covington partners.

Covington white-collar practice chair Bruce Baird worked with Chertoff in the Southern District of New York in the eighties and fellow partner Alan Vinegrad served as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York when Chertoff headed the criminal division. Chertoff says he's also known former firm partners Eric Holder, Jr., and Lanny Breuer--now manning the top two posts at the Justice Department--for a long time.

Chertoff's own time at Main Justice led him to pursue further public service.

In March 2003, President Bush nominated him to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. He was confirmed that June by the Senate in an 88-1 vote. Almost two years later, Chertoff was unanimously confirmed by the Senate to succeed Tom Ridge as DHS secretary.

At Covington, Chertoff will be counseling clients in government, regulatory, and internal investigations. He also expects to do a fair amount of white-collar trial work as well as get involved in the international arena, where he plans to draw on all of his past experiences but especially his time at DHS.

Leading the 218,000-employee, $15 billion agency was both gratifying and challenging, he says, forcing him in the course of any given week to deal with immigration policy, border security, transportation and travel security, disaster management, and emergency response.

"If I boiled it down, I'd say that I had more exposure to the biggest emergencies and crises that anybody possibly could have," Chertoff says of his work as DHS secretary. "We lived from crisis to crisis. So in addition to managing crises as a lawyer, now I also have the experience of managing crises as a principal."

Since leaving public service, Chertoff's focused his time on speaking engagements and getting involved with several public policy think tanks, with Covington's focus on public policy being another aspect that drew him to the firm. Beyond practicing law, Chertoff says he plans to advise on risk management issues through a new business he's setting up, Chertoff Group LLC.

Chertoff did not rely on a recruiter in the traditional sense in transitioning to Covington. The connection to the firm came at a dinner party when former under secretary of state and deputy treasury secretary Stuart Eisenstadt asked Chertoff to call on him if ever he decided to return to a law firm.

"Covington is obviously one of the firms that you think of naturally," Chertoff says. "So I called Stu up, we initiated discussions, and the rest is history."

In January, Covington announced that former Justice Department antitrust chief Thomas Barnett would rejoin the firm to head its global antitrust and competition practice. The firm had profits per equity partner of $1.18 million in 2007.

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