Former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker will represent Zach Edwards, a Democratic operative who is charged with attempting identity theft against Republican Secretary of State Matt Schultz.
According to the Criminal Complaint, on June 24, 2011, Edwards fraudulently used, or attempted to use, the identity of Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz and/or Secretary Schultz’s brother, Thomas Schultz, with the intent to obtain a benefit, in an alleged scheme to falsely implicate Secretary Schultz in perceived illegal or unethical behavior while in office.
A former staffer for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign in Iowa, Edwards was working for the Democratic consulting firm Link Strategies at the time of the alleged crime. Jeff Link fired Edwards on the day charges were filed and distanced himself from Edwards’ alleged actions in comments to the media.
After running unsuccessfully for state treasurer in 2002, Whitaker became U.S. attorney for the southern district of Iowa during George W. Bush’s administration. He went into private practice after Obama became president, and his Whitaker Hagenow law firm is home to several up-and-coming Iowa Republicans. Senior partner Chris Hagenow has served in the Iowa House since 2009. Brenna Findley joined the firm in 2010, while she was running for attorney general. (She left to become Governor Terry Branstad’s legal counsel.) Another partner in Whitaker Hagenow is William Gustoff, whom Branstad named to the State Judicial Nominating Commission. The Iowa Senate declined to confirm Gustoff.
Whitaker has remained active in Iowa Republican politics, co-chairing the presidential campaigns of Tim Pawlenty and Rick Perry last year.
When I contacted Whitaker today to check whether he is representing Edwards, Whitaker made clear that he “only confirmed my representation, nothing else” in published reports about the case.
You might think a Republican “rising star” is an odd choice of defense attorney for a Democrat, but having a well-known Republican counsel may help Edwards if this case goes to trial. The criminal complaint suggests that the prosecution will attempt to show the alleged identity theft was politically motivated. Edwards is scheduled to appear in court on January 30. I haven’t seen any report indicating what plea he will enter. I assume “not guilty,” since he has retained a high-powered attorney. UPDATE: Edwards entered a plea of “not guilty” on January 27 “and avoided a preliminary hearing that was scheduled for Monday [January 30].”
Edwards is an odd client for the politically ambitious Whitaker. Many Iowa Republicans are disturbed by Edwards’ actions. Many believe that Whitaker is interested in running for office again, but defending a Democrat operative who tried to steal a Republican office holder’s identity would surely become an issue in a primary.
Edwards was employed by Link Strategies, a Democrat-affiliated organization with ties to a number of prominent Democrat elected officials such as Senator Tom Harkin and Congressman Bruce Braley. The firm’s founder, Jeff Link, held a fundraiser for former Iowa Secretary of State Mike Mauro in 2009. Iowa campaign disclosures show that Link contributed $3,033.97 worth of food and beverages to the Mauro campaign. Edwards was the Director of New Media for Link Strategies.
I don’t believe that taking this case hurts Whitaker. Defense attorneys are not known for being afraid to represent potentially unpopular clients. Whitaker’s last high-profile criminal defendant was Wendy Runge, one of the film producers charged in connection with misusing Iowa tax credits. Runge ended up pleading guilty in that case.
In a “small world” twist, the attorney who set up Runge’s Iowa film company was a former law partner of Matt Schultz in Council Bluffs. Iowa Democrats tried to make an issue out of that connection late in Schultz’s 2010 campaign against Secretary of State Mike Mauro, but critics never produced evidence that Schultz was in any way involved in Runge’s business affairs.
Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.