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Alleged Ethics Violations at Richmond Law Firm Cost Taxpayers Millions

Entrance to office building
McGuireWoods' office in Downtown Richmond. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

NPR recently reportedon alleged ethics violations at Virginia’s largest law firm, McGuireWoods. The firm is accused of representing adversary clients: one a federal agency, the other a non-profit that the CEO of that federal agency was trying to defund.

The firm reportedly agreed to represent its federal client, the U.S. Agency for Global Media, weeks after cutting loose another client, the non-profit, Open Technology Fund, which it had been advising at no cost. The fund helps people living in repressive regimes communicate securely; the government agency oversees the fund and other public service media networks.

Michael Pack, the former Pres. Trump-appointed CEO of the federal agency, wanted to stop subsidizing the non-profit. So he reportedly hired McGuireWoods to investigate the organization.

Lauren Turner, the fund's general counsel, told NPR she was speechless.

A spokesperson for McGuireWoods told VPM the firm does not discuss its representation of clients.

Walter Shaub, a fellow with the Project on Government Oversight and the former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, says this is potentially a serious conflict of interest and raises questions about the law firm’s protection of confidential information.

“It’s hard to understand how the leadership at McGuireWoods thought that this could be okay,” Shaub said. “And on top of that, the contract involves extraordinary sums of money.”

Senior partners earned more than $2 million in less than five months, according to NPR, all on the taxpayer’s dime.

“That might be normal for a gigantic corporation like Exxon or Chevron but this is absolutely abnormal for a federal agency,” he said. “Not only the sums of money, but the nature of the work.”

The U.S. Office of Inspector General routinely conducts the kinds of investigations that Pack paid McGuireWoods to do in a no-bid contract.

Shaub suggests the Virginia Bar Association look into the possible violations.

“I don’t know how anybody can feel good about hiring a lawyer if lawyers and their law firms will meet with you, gain all kinds of inside information and then represent your adversary in a similar or related matter,” Schaub said.

VPM reached out to the Virginia State Bar and spoke to Deputy Executive Director Cameron Rountree.

“We’re aware of the press reports concerning McGuireWoods. I have no knowledge of any complaints against any lawyers and would be precluded by the Rules of the Supreme Court from commenting if there were any,” Rountree said.

He said the reason for the confidentiality is that until formal charges are lodged, the attorneys involved have a right to some presumption of ethical compliance.

VPM was unable to reach Open Technology Fund for comment on Monday.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story had a typo in Walter Shaub's name. It has been corrected. We also clarified his comments around conflict of interest.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.