Mueller team lawyer Andrew Weissmann brings witness-flipping expertise to Trump-Russia probes

June 19 (Reuters) - A veteran federal prosecutor recruited onto special counsel Robert Mueller's team is known for a skill that may come in handy in the investigation of potential ties between Russia and U.S. President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign team: persuading witnesses to turn on friends, colleagues and superiors.

Andrew Weissmann, who headed the U.S. Justice Department's criminal fraud section before joining Mueller's team last month, is best known for two assignments - the investigation of now-defunct energy company Enron and organized crime cases in Brooklyn, New York - that depended heavily on gaining witness cooperation.

Securing the cooperation of people close to Trump, many of whom have been retaining their own lawyers, could be important for Mueller, who was named by the Justice Department as special counsel on May 17 and is investigating, among other issues, whether Trump himself has sought to obstruct justice. Trump has denied allegations of both collusion and obstruction.

"Flipping" witnesses is a common, although not always successful, tactic in criminal prosecutions.

RELATED: Reaction to Robert Mueller's appointment to Russia investigation

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Reaction to Robert Mueller's appointment to Russia investigation
Trump statement https://t.co/uXbFDYpIqP
My statement on DAG Rosenstein's decisions to appoint a special counsel https://t.co/s7i5LjPcg1
.@SpeakerRyan Statement on the Appointment of Special Counsel https://t.co/YhKhf5YVcV
Appointment of special counsel is very positive. Mueller is a solid choice who will help reestablish public confide… https://t.co/IJnOCOnZIw
Robert Mueller’s appointment is a positive step. I am hopeful that he will help us get to the bottom of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.
A special counsel is very much needed in this situation and Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein has done the right thing.
(1/2) I support the appointment of Bob Mueller as special counsel for the Russia investigation. https://t.co/AUVNzmzUk6
(2/2) Bob Mueller was a great U.S. attorney & FBI director. He’s respected, talented and has the knowledge & ability to do the right thing.
Having known him for years, I believe special counsel Mueller is a very good thing. He is one of the best -- indepe… https://t.co/IUnElVxegr
Mueller is a great selection. Impeccable credentials. Should be widely accepted.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder on appointment of Robert Mueller as Special Counsel in Trump/Russia affair: https://t.co/Sowez3yFyl
"He has the expertise and experience, and the guts and backbone to uncover truth," Sen. Blumenthal says of Robert M… https://t.co/gr11ooOMXl
Mueller is a good first step -- but can't take the place of an independent commission free from Trump's meddling. https://t.co/Dv6m4eC7xw
I commend @TheJusticeDept for taking the appropriate step of appointing a special counsel. https://t.co/tBgRzNrMGO
Robert Mueller's appointment as special counsel is a positive step. My statement: https://t.co/6pDM4z8hD4
Senator Collins’ statement on appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel #mepolitics https://t.co/Ku6hk5V75e
Murphy statement on appointment of special prosecutor for investigation into Trump campaign ties to Russia https://t.co/yjvIckje66
My full statement on the appointment of Special Counsel to oversee #TrumpRussia investigation… https://t.co/aEphkfSnKs
Mueller does not erase the need for an independent commission. #ProtectOurDemocracy https://t.co/q3ev9tfMWf
.@RonWyden's statement on the appointment of special counsel https://t.co/3DAdwJvJem https://t.co/JV9b1DA3Iu
Here's my statement on appointment of a special counsel to lead FBI Russia investigation: https://t.co/vsGhi6yiXp
My statement on the appointment of a #SpecialCounsel to investigate the troubling #TrumpRussia ties: https://t.co/iGlCWjTxd0
I’m encouraged to see @TheJusticeDept has appointed a special counsel to lead the investigation into #TrumpRussia https://t.co/0WNjIEJSqw
Mr. Mueller is a man of integrity and well chosen. Must ensure he has resources necessary for a rigorous investigation #SpecialCounsel
Bob Mueller is a man of integrity. I have every confidence he will pursue this investigation and follow the facts,… https://t.co/ZYXnqF1QYu
The issue of Russian meddling in our election must be investigated fully & former FBI dir. Mueller is well qualified to oversee this probe.
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Robert Ray, who succeeded Kenneth Starr as the independent counsel examining former President Bill Clinton, noted that Trump's fired former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, has already offered through his lawyer to testify before Congress in exchange for immunity, suggesting potential willingness to cooperate as a witness.

"It would seem to me the time is now to make some decisions about what you have and what leverage can be applied to get the things you don't have," Ray said, referring to Mueller's team.

Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner and others close to the president already have hired their own lawyers to help navigate Mueller's expanding probe and ongoing congressional investigations.

Kathryn Ruemmler, who served as White House counsel under former President Barack Obama, said Weissmann is willing to take risks to secure witness testimony that other prosecutors might not. Ruemmler worked with Weissmann on the Justice Department's Enron task force that investigated the massive corporate fraud that led to the company's 2001 collapse.

Ruemmler recalled that Weissmann had a hunch that former Enron treasurer Ben Glisan would be willing to talk despite already having pleaded guilty without agreeing to cooperate. So Weissmann had U.S. marshals bring Glisan before the grand jury from prison, Ruemmler said.

'NOT AFRAID TO LOSE'

Other prosecutors might have feared Glisan's testimony could contradict their theory of the case, Ruemmler said, but Weissmann's gamble paid off when the former executive became a key witness.

"He's not afraid to lose, and that is sometimes an unusual quality," Ruemmler said of Weissmann.

Weissmann also led lengthy negotiations with lawyers for Andrew Fastow, Enron's former chief financial officer and a star prosecution witness in the case, gaining leverage from the fact that prosecutors had indicted Fastow's wife, also a former Enron employee, on tax fraud charges.

Both pleaded guilty, and Fastow testified against former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling, who was convicted in 2006.

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Fastow declined to comment. Glisan could not be reached for comment. Representatives for Mueller and the Trump legal team declined to comment.

Critics have said say Weissmann's hardball approach can lead to prosecutorial overreach. A number of Enron convictions were overturned on appeal, and Skilling's 24-year sentence was later reduced by 10 years.

Defense lawyer Tom Kirkendall, who represented clients related to the Enron case, said the task force intimidated witnesses and misinterpreted the law.

But Sam Buell, a former prosecutor who was a member of the Enron task force, called such criticism routine in high-stakes cases.

Mueller has several other highly experienced lawyers on his team, including U.S. Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben. Trump has also been building a legal team led by New York lawyer Marc Kasowitz, with veteran Washington defense lawyer John Dowd recently coming aboard.

RELATED: Key players in Trump-Russia connection allegations

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Key players in Trump-Russia connection allegations

Paul Manafort

Paul Manafort signed on as Donald Trump's campaign manager in March 2016. A longtime Republican strategist and beltway operative, Manafort had previously served as an adviser to former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich -- a pro-Russia leader who was violently ousted in 2014. Manafort resigned from his campaign position in August 2016 amid questions over his lobbying history in Ukraine for an administration supportive of Russia. The former campaign manager reportedly remained in Trump's circle during the post-election transition period.

Michael Flynn

Gen. Michael Flynn was named President Trump's national security adviser in November of 2016. Flynn reportedly met and spoke with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December, at one point discussing sanctions. Flynn originally told Vice President Pence he did not discuss sanctions -- a point the Department of Justice said made the national security adviser subject to blackmail. Flynn resigned from his position in February.

Sergey Kislyak

Outgoing Russian ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak is the Russian official U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions -- communication Sessions denied during his Senate committee hearing testimony.

Roger Stone

Stone is a longtime Republican political consultant who served as a campaign adviser to Trump who continued to talk with the then-GOP candidate after stepping away from his adviser role. Stone claimed last year that he had knowledge of the planned WikiLeaks release of emails pertaining to Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee. Stone recently admitted to speaking via direct message with "Guccifer 2.0" -- an online entity U.S. officials believe is tied to Russia. Stone says the correspondence was “completely innocuous.”

Jeff Sessions

Former U.S. senator Jeff Sessions from Alabama joined Trump's campaign as a foreign policy adviser in February 2016. Sessions was nominated to be U.S. attorney general by President Trump and was then confirmed by the Senate. Reports then emerged that Sessions had spoken twice with Sergey Kislyak while he was senator -- a fact that he left out of his Senate hearing testimony. Instead, he said in writing that he had not communicated with any Russian officials during the campaign season. Sessions defended himself saying he had spoken with Kislyak specifically in a senate capacity.

Russian President Vladimir Putin

The American intelligence community accused Putin in Jan. 2017 of ordering a campaign to undermine trust in the American electoral process, developing a clear preference for Trump as president. "We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia's goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump," the report read.

James Comey

Comey publicly confirmed in March an FBI inquiry into Russia's involvement in the 2016 election. “The F.B.I., as part of our counterintelligence effort, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 president election,” Comey stated.

Carter Page

Page worked for Merrill Lynch as an investment banker out of their Moscow office for three years before joining Trump's campaign as a foreign policy adviser. During his time with Merrill Lynch, Page advised transactions for two major Russian entities. Page has called Washington "hypocritical" for focusing on corruption and democratization in addressing U.S. relations with Russia. While Page is someone Trump camp has seemingly tried to distance itself from, Page recently said he has made frequent visits to Trump Tower.

J.D. Gordon

Before Gordon joined the Trump campaign as a national security adviser in March 2016, he served as a Pentagon spokesman from 2005 through 2009. Like others involved in Trump-Russia allegations, Gordon met with ambassador Kislyak in July at the Republican National Convention, but has since denied any wrongdoing in their conversation. He advocated for and worked to revise the RNC language on and position toward Ukraine relations, so it was more friendly toward Russia's dealings in the country.

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Before his work relating to Enron, Weissmann served as a federal prosecutor in the organized crime bureau in Brooklyn. In 1997, he and trial partner George Stamboulidis brought down one of the country's most powerful mob bosses, Vincent "the Chin" Gigante, with the help of turncoat witnesses.

"We cut our teeth in the organized crime section," said Stamboulidis, now in private practice. "And the only way you can make those cases is to get people to cooperate, even when the oath of Omerta (a Mafia code of silence and non-cooperation with authorities) was strong and in full play."

(Reporting by Karen Freifeld; Editing by Anthony Lin and Will Dunham)

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