Geoffrey Berman: At the Helm of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of N.Y.

Geoffrey S. Berman, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, firmly believes that politics and law enforcement are a dangerous mix. As a young lawyer, Berman, JD ’84, helped investigate potential crimes by President Reagan and his top aides for illegally selling arms to Iran to finance right-wing militias in Nicaragua. The investigation of the Iran-Contra affair, which spanned eight years and cost more than $40 million, was denounced as a partisan witch-hunt; Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole dubbed the team of investigators “highly paid assassins.”

But Berman stuck to his guns, helping to convict a former CIA operative who was the only Iran-Contra defendant to go to prison. His tenacity was all the more impressive to colleagues because of his personal politics: Like Reagan, he was a Republican.

“It showed a commitment to the rule of law and doing the right thing, even when it was controversial,” says William Treanor, dean of Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C. The men worked together on the Iran-Contra case as associates of Lawrence Walsh, a former U.S. district judge, who was appointed by a court to oversee the investigation.

Today, Berman’s at it again, as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. His office has been helping special prosecutor Robert S. Mueller III as he investigates crimes arising out of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. In August, it secured a guilty plea from President Trump’s one-time personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, for tax fraud and violating campaign laws.

Two weeks earlier, Berman secured an indictment of Christopher Collins, a Republican congressman from New York, on insider trading charges and lying to the FBI. Collins was one of the first sitting members of Congress to endorse Trump for president and, like Berman, served as a member of his transition team. Berman declines to discuss the Cohen case, which is being overseen by his deputy, Robert Khuzami, because of a self-disclosed conflict. Questioned about the Collins’ indictment at a news conference, Berman declared, “Politics does not enter into our decision making on charging. We bring a case when the case is ready to be brought.”

In an interview in his office in lower Manhattan, Berman discussed his wide-ranging career and the exhilaration of practicing law at the highest level of the public and private spheres.

“This is by far the most important job I’ve held. It is also great fun,”

Berman says. “Every day I come in and I work with hundreds of the brightest legal minds in the country, all dedicated to pursuing justice. What job is better than that?”

“Geoff is not egotistical, and that is important in that job. It is a team effort. You want to have everyone feel part of the team.”

— Michael Chertoff former secretary of homeland security under President George W. Bush

The office he oversees—which encompasses the boroughs of Manhattan and the Bronx along with six outlying counties—is rooted in the early days of American law and remains one of the largest groups of federal prosecutors in the country. Its reputation for fierce independence is so well-established it is often referred to as the “Sovereign District of New York,” both for its relationship with Washington and disdain for political interference.

“Doing the right thing, and acting on the merits completely, that may sound naïve, but it is the steel spine of that place,” says Mary Jo White, the chair of the Securities Exchange Commission under President Obama who was the U.S. attorney in New York in the early 1990s when Berman was an assistant. “Geoff has that,” she says.

With more than 200 assistant U.S. attorneys, or AUSAs, its depth and breadth of resources, and proximity to Wall Street, mean the office is involved in a broad range of matters, often of national significance.

This summer, his office apprehended a Russian citizen who allegedly hacked into the computers of JP Morgan Chase in the biggest financial hack of all time. It also negotiated a consent agreement with the New York City Housing Authority to spend $1.2 billion to improve toxic and squalid living conditions for 400,000 public housing residents including many children.

The same day Cohen entered his plea, the office charged almost a dozen gang members with narcotics and firearms offenses and murder—and indicted a Westchester attorney for embezzling money from a widow’s estate. Its bailiwick includes mobsters and doctors who defraud Medicare, cutting-edge securities fraud, and stolen fine art.

Berman is seen as a collegial boss who stands out in a job that over the years has attracted some out-sized personalities who used it as a stepping-stone to even greater fame and prominence. His predecessors include Henry Stimson, appointed by Theodore Roosevelt, who later served in the cabinets of five presidents. Other alums include Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, and former FBI director James Comey.

“Geoff is very smart, he has a lot of experience, but he does not take himself too seriously,” says Michael Chertoff, the former secretary of homeland security under President George W. Bush, who worked with Berman at Latham & Watkins. “Geoff is not egotistical, and that is important in that job. It is a team effort. You want to have everyone feel part of the team.”

Among Berman’s closest friends is Rich Appel, executive producer of the animated sitcom Family Guy. They were AUSAs together in New York before Appel quit for Hollywood, where among other things he wrote a satirical look at life in a U.S. attorney’s office, A.U.S.A., which included two characters named after Berman. The series had a short-lived run on NBC. “Geoff is one of the funniest guys I know,” Appel says.

Colleagues also cite his ability to work constructively with a wide range of people—whether a street-smart FBI agent or a by-the-book federal judge.

In an early computer hacker case, Berman, as a young prosecutor, worked with members of a group called the Masters of Deception, which had caused havoc breaking into the New York City phone system and other networks. The hackers agreed to testify for the government about the group’s computer intrusions. The challenge for Berman was that the information was highly technical, and the young perpetrators, while smart and savvy, were socially awkward.

Geoffrey Berman: At the Helm of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of N.Y.
Geoffrey Berman, JD ’84, on the steps of the Thurgood Marshall Courthouse in New York (Photo credit: Ethan Hill)

“You had to build a relationship with them to get them to trust the trial process and explain what they did in a way the jury would understand,” recalls Stephen Fishbein, a partner at Shearman & Sterling and former AUSA with Berman. “Geoff did a terrific job.” The leader of the group was sentenced to a year in prison, the first such sentence in a hacker case; an effigy of Berman, with a knife in its chest, soon after made the cover of a popular hacker magazine.

Laura Loeb, JD ’84, remembers first meeting Berman at Stanford Law. He was wearing a T-shirt bearing the name of the private prep school he attended in New Jersey. Loeb was from a small town in southern Illinois of the same name. Despite their different backgrounds, they ended up sharing a house together for two years and have remained good friends since.

“I am a progressive Democrat, and Geoff I would describe as a moderate Republican. So, we did not necessarily agree on politics,” Loeb says. “But we were always able to have a healthy, fair-minded debate.”

Born in Trenton, the son of a prominent local lawyer and developer, Berman received degrees in political science and economics from the University of Pennsylvania. After law school, he clerked for Leonard Garth of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. After his clerkship, he became an associate at Davis Polk & Wardwell, where he was mentored by Robert Fiske, Jr., a Davis Polk partner and himself a former U.S. attorney.

Fiske was defending the NFL against a federal antitrust suit filed by the United States Football League. The upstart league—President Trump owned one of the teams—flourished for a time playing a spring schedule but ran into trouble when it began playing games in the fall head-to-head with the NFL. It sued the NFL in 1984 claiming it was an illegal monopoly that forced it out of business.

Berman worked with expert witnesses on whether certain segments of the professional football market could be monopolized. “He was very hard-working, intelligent, very much of a team player,” Fiske recalls. “He did a lot of important work with witnesses and researching and writing briefs.”

A jury found that the NFL was a monopoly but that the USFL had in effect put itself out of business through mismanagement. It awarded the USFL $1 in damages, in what was widely considered a major rebuke, and the league dissolved. A copy of the jury verdict hangs on a wall in Berman’s office.

From a giant antitrust case, in 1986 he segued to investigating President Reagan and his closest aides, after Fiske recommended him to Walsh, a former law partner at Davis Polk. Berman, who did early work researching scores of relevant federal laws, became the resident expert on a series of congressional enactments banning U.S. support for the Nicaraguan rebels and was dubbed “Professor Boland,” after the congressman who authored the legislation.

Berman later worked with yet another former U.S. district judge, Kenneth Conboy, who had been appointed by a court to investigate abuses in the labor movement. Conboy and Berman exposed a New York union leader as an agent of the Genovese crime family who doled out lucrative carpenter jobs to mob-connected figures. They also overturned the election of a reformist Teamster president on grounds he had taken illegal campaign contributions. “I have the absolute highest respect and regard for Geoff Berman,” Conboy says.

But then, in a decision that was met with both incredulity and envy among his peers, Berman resigned his then partnership at Latham in 1999 to work in the family business. His father was developing an arena in downtown Trenton and needed an anchor tenant; he also needed a general counsel for his real estate firm.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Berman says. He structured and negotiated deals, including the acquisition of a minor league hockey team as the arena’s anchor tenant. The arena is located on the site of an old steelworks that made the wire rope used to build the Brooklyn Bridge, which as Berman notes, is visible from his current office.

He hired a general manager to run the team while supervising off-the-ice business. Both were successful enterprises. After the team won its league championship, it was sold to the

National Hockey League’s New Jersey Devils. And Berman headed back to law practice at Greenberg Traurig, where he made a name representing individuals in white-collar investigations of financial institutions.

Today, his routine includes supervising complex investigations and promoting, in speeches and at press conferences, his office’s good work, not all of which is life and death. This summer, Berman hosted a repatriation ceremony to announce the recovery of a long-lost painting by abstract artist Robert Motherwell.

“The painting is to my right, and as you can see, it’s quite large and quite beautiful,” Berman said, gesturing to the red and black work as it remained shrouded in protective white cardboard. “Notice the excellent use of negative space. It is both provocative and cerebral … and that’s just the cover.” The room erupted in laughter.  SL

Rick Schmitt was a staff writer and editor with the Wall Street Journal and the Justice Department correspondent in the Washington Bureau of the Los Angeles Times.