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Rupert Murdoch assembles US legal team

Rupert Murdoch is assembling a team of US lawyers with expertise in fighting large federal criminal cases, suggesting he is readying himself for a bitter legal battle in America as a result of the phone-hacking scandal.

At the centre of the team is Brendan Sullivan, one of America’s most experienced lawyers, who over 40 years in litigation has acquired a reputation for taking on difficult and sensitive cases. He represented Oliver North, the US marine corps officer, in congressional hearings over the Iran-Contra affair.

At the time of the hearings in 1987, Sullivan was described by the Washington Post as “the legal equivalent of nuclear war”. A fellow lawyer said: “He asks no quarter and gives no quarter.”

Sullivan describes himself as a specialist in “high-profile criminal litigation”, whose typical clients include major companies involved in “criminal investigations, litigation or government regulatory matters”. He is the author of Techniques for Dealing with Pending Criminal Charges or Criminal Investigations.

Sullivan was probably brought on board by Murdoch last week on the recommendation of Joel Klein, the former US assistant attorney general who the News Corporation chief has entrusted with leading its internal investigation into the phone-hacking scandal.

Klein’s wife, Nicole Seligman, who is now the top lawyer at Sony, used to work for Sullivan’s firm, Williams & Connolly, in Washington.

The appointment of Sullivan — revealed last week by the New York Times‘s Dealbook blog — is being seen as an indication that Murdoch is preparing for the worst. In the UK, News International has already set aside about £20-million in preparation for compensation payments to victims of its phone-hacking activities, and pressure is now building in the US for criminal and civil legal action.

The FBI has already launched an investigation into allegations that News of the World journalists tried to obtain phone records of 9/11 victims, and several prominent members of Congress have called for an inquiry into News Corp under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act that penalises US-based firms for bribery abroad.

News Corp, which is headquartered in the US, is considered vulnerable as employees at News of the World are accused of having bribed UK police officers.

The US securities and exchange commission could also bring civil charges if News Corp is found to have inaccurately prepared its accounts in an attempt to disguise bribery payments.

‘You hire him because you think you are going to trial’
Eric Holder, the US attorney general, confirmed on Friday that federal investigations were under way into the 9/11 allegations. “There have been members of Congress in the United States who have asked us to investigate those same allegations. And we are progressing in that regard using the appropriate federal agencies in the United States.”

Sidney Blumenthal, who reported on the North case for the Post and worked with the Kleins in the Clinton administration, said the message from Sullivan’s appointment was clear. “He is a criminal attorney who works for high-profile public figures facing large federal prosecutions. That’s why you hire Brendan Sullivan. It’s not because you have a tax problem or a traffic ticket — you hire him because you think you are going to trial.”

In one of the first specific allegations that the News of the World may have violated US privacy laws, it was claimed over the weekend that the film actor Jude Law had his phone hacked into by reporters for the newspaper while he was arriving at New York’s JFK airport. Were the allegations found to be true, that would involve a breach of US phone networks which could carry serious consequences.

Among his recent cases, Sullivan represented Ted Stevens, the late former senator for Alaska, who was found guilty of federal corruption charges. Sullivan had the conviction dismissed on the grounds that the prosecution had withheld evidence.

He also represented Henry Cisneros in 1995 when he was investigated for having lied to the FBI in a background check before his appointment as Bill Clinton’s housing secretary, as well as Richard Grasso, the then chairperson of the New York Stock Exchange, in a 2004 lawsuit about his allegedly excessive pay package of $140-million which was eventually dropped.

Sullivan was brought up outside Providence in Rhode Island. He is a keen sailor and owns a yacht called, appropriately, the Mistrial. –

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