Christopher Wray, the president’s pick to head the FBI, is widely respected in the national security legal world, but his law firm’s work for Russian state-run companies and the omission of his own work for one American client being investigated by the Kremlin could draw pointed questions during his Wednesday confirmation hearing.
Wray has won vocal praise from his former DOJ colleagues and is expected to ultimately be confirmed. But the American Civil Liberties Union’s national political director told The Daily Beast he should have revealed more on the disclosure forms he gave the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The questionnaire he submitted to the committee on June 29 doesn’t mention Russia, though he represented one client who was facing scrutiny from the Russian government and his law firm represents Rosneft and Gazprom, two state-controlled oil companies. That firm, King & Spalding, represents oil and gas interests around the globe. Its website lists half a dozen attorneys who practice in its Moscow office.
“The word Russia is a curious omission from his submissions,” said Faiz Shakir, the ACLU’s national political director. “Why was a Russian client deleted from his bio on the website before he was nominated? The Senate should certainly probe that one.”
The Russia-related client Shakir referred to was an unnamed American energy executive being investigated by the Russian government. CNN reported last month that Wray removed a reference to that client from his bio on his law firm website. A King & Spalding spokesperson told CNN Wray removed the reference in January of this year, before he was a contender for an administration post.
Wray’s former chief of staff and fellow King & Spalding attorney, John Richter, told The Daily Beast that Wray’s ethical record is exemplary.
“Chris has not represented Russian companies or Russian individuals during his time at King & Spalding,” Richter said. “Chris has a proven record of ethical and effective representation for both his private practice clients and as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, and as a senior Department official. Like other highly qualified lawyers who have been called on to serve in government, Chris is very familiar with the ethics rules that will govern him if he is confirmed to be the FBI Director and he will consult closely with DOJ ethics personnel so as to avoid conflicts.”
Wray was at the Justice Department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., from 2001 to 2005, first in the deputy attorney general’s office during the Ashcroft years and then as the head of the Criminal Division from 2003 to 2005. That was before the formation of the department’s National Security Division, so Wray spent much of his time there focused on national security and counterterror issues.
One of the most politically electric cases he worked on was the prosecution of ex-CIA contractor David Passaro for abusing a prisoner in an Afghanistan military base. Witnesses testified that Passaro kicked the prisoner so hard he was lifted off the ground and hit him with a flashlight while interrogating him, according to The Washington Post. The man died 48 hours after the interrogation.
As head of the Criminal Division, Wray oversaw Passaro’s prosecution. Prosecutors used the Patriot Act to charge Passaro—a step The New York Times called “highly unusual.”
“The criminal abuse of persons detained in the global war on terrorism will not be tolerated,” Wray said when the indictment was announced. “The Department of Justice will move to punish those whose actions violate the rule of law. Such abuse violates the core principles of a free and just society.”
Passaro was the first and last U.S. civilian convicted for abusing a detainee in Iraq or Afghanistan. And scrutiny of prisoner abuse drew pointed criticism from the right—when Obama’s Justice Department started investigating detainee abuse, former Vice President Dick Cheney told The Weekly Standard that the CIA personnel who interrogated detainees “deserve our gratitude. They do not deserve to be the targets of political investigations or prosecutions.”
Barry Sabin, who headed the Criminal Division’s counterterror section while Wray was there, told The Daily Beast that Wray’s willingness to prosecute Passaro means he will ignore political pressure as FBI chief.
“That is representative of his character, the ability to make careful but difficult decisions,” said Sabin, now a partner at Latham & Watkins. “He has the confidence maturity and grounding to be able to not only make them, but to get buy-in from a range of constituencies. He’s both about process and substance.”
Maureen Killion, who worked under Wray when he headed the Criminal Division, also had high praise for him.
“He was always, always, always a pleasure to deal with,” she said. “He was never a jerk, and a lot of lawyers are jerks.”
Wray has a record of squaring off against people he’s close to personally. His former DOJ associates said Larry Thompson—who was deputy attorney general under Ashcroft—was a mentor to him when they both worked at King & Spalding, and later at the Justice Department. Wray worked on the prosecution of one of Thompson’s clients in 2001. At issue were allegations that Raymond McClendon, who headed an investment bank, stole millions of dollars from the city of Atlanta. The case was highly complex, according to Joe Robuck, a retired FBI agent who worked with Wray on the investigation. Thompson was one of the defense attorneys representing McClendon at the trial.
And the trial was tense, with the defense team frequently objecting when the prosecutors moved to enter evidence.
“I can remember Chris standing up in court just battling away on these objections from Larry and the other defense counsel,” Robuck said.
“He never gave an inch of the government’s case away,” he added. “He just looked really determined.”
Wray returned to King & Spalding after his time at the Justice Department, where he made millions, according to new financial disclosure forms. If he’s confirmed as FBI director, he will take a substantial pay cut.
“That’s a number that 99 percent of our population would not give up for anything,” Robuck said, “and here’s a guy willing to go into the cauldron that is Washington D.C., give up ten years of his personal safety, in a sense, by being FBI director.”
It’s unlikely Wray will have much trouble getting confirmed. But it’s inevitable he’ll have to talk a lot about Russia before that happens.