Federal prosecutors want to disqualify the former deputy attorney general who is defending the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies in a bank fraud case because the government believes his previous work for it poses a conflict of interest.
In a filing on Friday in federal court in Brooklyn, prosecutors said the attorney, James M. Cole, should not be permitted to represent Huawei because he had been briefed on an undisclosed investigation while serving as a top prosecutor in the Obama administration.
The filing is redacted, making it difficult to ascertain the exact nature of the investigation. But Mr. Cole’s tenure at the Department of Justice — from the end of 2010 to the beginning of 2015 — may have overlapped with the period when federal authorities were gathering information on Huawei and its business dealings.
Mr. Cole is now co-head of the white-collar and investigations practice at the Sidley Austin law firm. A spokeswoman for the firm did not respond Friday to requests for comment on the disqualification attempt.
Huawei had said that it would “vigorously oppose the government’s motion,” and that there was no justification for “denying Huawei its constitutional rights.” The company did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.
The attempt to disqualify Mr. Cole is unusual; corporate defendants are generally entitled to be represented by a lawyer of their choosing. But it was not a surprise.
Last week, federal prosecutors notified the judge in the case, Ann M. Donnelly, that they had filed a sealed motion to disqualify Mr. Cole. The letter did not offer a reason, but prosecutors said they would file a redacted version by Friday.
The 26-page redacted motion said that Mr. Cole had refused a request to recuse himself, and that his representation of Huawei “poses real and irresolvable conflicts of interest.”
Sidley Austin has been representing Huawei since at least 2017, when a subpoena was served on the company, and Mr. Cole had become involved some time after, the filing said. Prosecutors said there could be “no confidence that Cole will not use, whether intentionally or not, information obtained” in the unidentified investigation.
Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn have also charged Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer and the daughter of its founder. She is being held under house arrest in Canada in a $16 million mansion she owns after being detained in December. Federal prosecutors are seeking to extradite her to the United States.
The government contends that Huawei and Ms. Meng conspired to mislead HSBC and other banks about Huawei’s relationship with a company called Skycom in order to circumvent United States sanctions against doing business in Iran. Lawyers for the company and Ms. Meng deny the allegations.
In a separate case, federal prosecutors in Seattle charged Huawei with theft of trade secrets. The company has pleaded not guilty.
The prosecutions are playing out while the United States and China are embroiled in tough trade negotiations that led the Trump administration to raise tariffs on Friday on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods.
The case has also sparked a rift between China and Canada, as China has detained two Canadians on espionage charges that some say are in retaliation for Ms. Meng’s arrest.
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