US government seeks to disqualify former Deputy Attorney General as Huawei lawyer

Prosecutors argued in a hearing Wednesday that a Huawei defense attorney, James Cole, has information that could undermine the government’s position in one of its cases because Cole formerly served as US deputy attorney general. Huawei’s lawyers referred to Cole as the “lead counsel” for the Chinese company on the case.

Lawyers for Huawei called the government’s motion to disqualify Cole “part of a barrage against Huawei.”

In the suit that Cole is defending, the government has alleged Huawei violated American economic sanctions on Iran and obstructed justice in the investigation that followed. Huawei pleaded not guilty in April. Also charged in the case is Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, who was arrested in Vancouver in December at the request of the United States and now faces a court battle in Canada that could result in her extradition.
The US government made the charges against the Chinese tech company public in January. At the same time, it unsealed charges in a separate federal case in Washington state alleging that Huawei tried to steal trade secrets from T-Mobile. Huawei has also pleaded not guilty to those charges. Not long after those suits were filed, the US government added Huawei to a trade blacklist that restricts American companies from selling products to Huawei.

Huawei, one of the world’s largest maker of cell phones, has been a major force in China’s technology sector, which is growing in influence. The US government has long claimed Huawei poses a threat to national security, something the company denies. More recently it has become a bargaining chip in the larger US-China trade war.

Cole, the Huawei lawyer the Justice Department wants thrown off the case, served as US deputy attorney general from 2010 to 2015.

In the hearing on Wednesday, lawyers for Huawei claimed that the government’s investigation into the company’s alleged evasion of Iran sanctions and bank fraud did not begin until 2016, after Cole had already left office. The government argued that as second in command at the Justice Department for five years, Cole had substantial knowledge of information related to the case, but would not offer further details in open court, citing national security concerns.

Cole, who is with the global law firm Sidley in Washington, DC, did not address the court during the open hearing but, also citing national security concerns, said he would address the government’s allegation in a closed hearing. Huawei is also being represented in the case by a number of other lawyers from multiple firms in addition to Cole.

Huawei did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Huawei has been on the government’s radar since at least 2012, when the House Intelligence Committee published a report stating Huawei’s telecom equipment posed a national security risk to the United States.