(Bloomberg) — Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker was alerted to a series of customer complaints about a Miami company where he was on the advisory board, according to new documents released by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.
The documents, produced Friday in response to Freedom of Information Act requests, contain internal correspondence among FTC investigators. They indicate that Whitaker, a former U.S. attorney in Iowa during the George W. Bush administration, occasionally received complaints about the business practices of the Miami-based firm, World Patent Marketing, and its chief executive officer, Scott Cooper.
The FTC sanctioned the company in 2017, describing it as an “invention promotion scheme” and accusing it of “bilking millions of dollars from consumers.”
President Donald Trump appointed Whitaker acting attorney general this month after asking Jeff Sessions to step down. That appointment, outside the usual chain of succession, is now being challenged in several court cases.
Subpoena to Whitaker
Starting in March 2017, FTC investigators tried to contact Whitaker to discuss what he knew about the company, according to the documents.
In early October of last year, the FTC sent Whitaker a subpoena, seeking information related to World Patent Marketing. Whitaker eventually responded, saying he had just taken a new job at the Justice Department.
FTC investigator James Evans spoke to Whitaker on Oct. 24, by which time the former U.S. attorney had been named chief of staff for Sessions. In a summary of the conversation, which he shared with his FTC colleagues, Evans wrote that Whitaker said he was willing to cooperate with the inquiry.
Whitaker told the FTC that he “never emailed or wrote to consumers” in his consulting role, Evans wrote.
Bloomberg reported earlier Friday that Whitaker wrote to a critic. In that report, Bloomberg incorrectly characterized that recipient as a disgruntled customer.
In fact, the individual Whitaker wrote to was a former associate of Cooper’s, according to court documents. A lawsuit filed in New York in 2015 refers to the same email chain, identifying the other party as an ex-associate whom Cooper accused of trying to extort money from him.
In the email to the former associate of Cooper, Whitaker wrote: “I am assuming you understand there could be serious civil and criminal consequences for you if that is in fact what you and your ‘group’ are doing.”
In the letter, Whitaker noted that he was a former U.S. attorney in Iowa. “I am familiar with your background and your history with Scott,” Whitaker wrote. “Understand that we take threats like this quite seriously.”
A key takeaway from the FTC documents is that World Patent Marketing used Whitaker’s background as a U.S. attorney to impress potential clients and bully perceived enemies.
On Nov. 21, 2014, soon after Whitaker joined the firm’s advisory board, Cooper, the CEO, wrote an email to a brand building company with the subject line, “Let’s build a Wikipedia page and use Whitaker to make it credible.”
A 2017 script that was apparently used to woo clients notes the company’s “incredible advisory board” that includes “former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker who was appointed by George Bush.”
Aware of Complaints
Whitaker was aware of some of the complaints filed against the company, since several people contacted him directly, according to the emails provided by the FTC. On Sept. 8, 2015, Whitaker forwarded Cooper an email that said, “Dear Matthew can you get a message to Scott Cooper you are on an advisory board but what you don’t know is how many people were scammed by him and how fraudulent they are and how much money they robbed from people.”
A few weeks earlier, another person wrote, “Do not email me again with your scare tactics. I am a former United States attorney for the southern district of Brooklyn New York. So stop with your bull sh[–] emails. You are party too a scam that is driving allot of traffic to WPM site. You will be exposed.”
Aside from the misspellings, the author appears to be exaggerating his own credentials: There is no such thing as a U.S. attorney for the “southern district of Brooklyn.”
Correction, Nov. 30:
The original version of this Bloomberg story incorrectly stated that Whitaker misled the FTC over actions he took on behalf of World Patent Marketing. The newly released documents do not indicate that Whitaker misled FTC investigators.