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Bet-The-Company Lawyer Steps In Between Government, S&P

Bloomberg Businessweek
02/08/2013

John Keker’s San Francisco law firm declares on its website that it takes the “the make or break cases where companies, careers and reputations are riding on the result.”

“True to our roots as trial lawyers, we relish the courtroom battles,” the firm says.

Keker, a Marine Corps platoon leader during the Vietnam War, may face as many as 18 of those judicial skirmishes as he goes to war in defense of the bond ratings firm Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and its parent, the McGraw-Hill Cos. (MHP)

S&P was sued this week by the U.S. Justice Department, 13 states and the District of Columbia for allegedly inflating ratings on mortgage-backed securities to boost its own profit. Illinois, Connecticut and Mississippi previously sued the New York-based company.

The U.S. alone seeks as much as $5 billion in penalties. The defendants, which deny wrongdoing, this week added Keker to a defense team that already included free-speech advocate Floyd Abrams and his New York-based law firm, Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP (1271L). “John Keker will have a central role in the trial of this case if there is a trial,” Abrams said in a Feb. 7 phone interview. “Cahill Gordon and I will be working with him.”

Abrams said the precise division of labor among the lawyers hasn’t been determined. Lawyers from both firms will be in court for any trial, he said.

‘Extraordinary Skill’

Abrams said his co-counsel was hired for his “extraordinary skill as a trial lawyer.” Keker didn’t respond to phone or e-mail requests seeking comment on his role in the case.

His clients have included former Black Panther Party leader Eldridge Cleaver and banned cyclist Lance Armstrong, as well as vindicated investment banker Frank Quattrone, Enron Corp (ENRNQ). executive Andrew Fastow and class action lawyer William Lerach.

A founding partner of Keker & Van Nest LLP (932197L), Keker, 69, was once voted by 100 of his California colleagues as the first lawyer they’d hire if they were charged with a serious crime.

“His name was mentioned more often than any other when our surveyed lawyers were asked who they’d turn to,” California Lawyer magazine reported in 2001.

‘Slashing and Smashing’

In a 2003 Bloomberg News profile, Keker said he honed his “slashing and smashing” defense tactics in white-collar crime trials and corporate litigation.

“He’s not afraid of anything,” Cristina Arguedas, a criminal defense lawyer who has known Keker since 1980, said in a Feb. 7 interview. The two have represented co-defendants in at least 30 cases, she said.

“He’s not your typical big firm, white-collar lawyer. He’s a real fighter. He lives to try cases,” said Arguedas of Arguedas Cassman & Headley in Berkeley, California. Her clients have included former San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds, who was convicted of obstructing a federal probe of performance-enhancing drugs, and former Atheros Communications Inc. Vice President Ali Hariri, who pleaded guilty in the Galleon Group LLC insider-trading probe.

Keker’s greatest strength, she said, is his ability to “see defenses that other people maybe don’t see and make them simple to understand.”

Catherine Mathis, an S&P spokeswoman, said in an e-mailed statement after the Justice Department sued that the company would defend itself against “these unwarranted claims.”

“Claims that we deliberately kept ratings high when we knew they should be lower are simply not true,” she said.

The case is U.S. v. McGraw-Hill Cos., 13-00779, U.S. District Court, Central District of California (Los Angeles).

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S&P is also represented by Keker & Van Nest partner Elliot Peters. or three decades Elliot Peters has litigated, tried and advised clients in some of the nation's most high-profile, high-stakes complex commercial and white collar criminal cases. Mr. Peters has tried more than 50 cases on behalf of CEOs, leading law firms, and major corporations. He is a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers. He has also been named Attorney of the Year by California Lawyer and The Recorder, the Litigator of the Week by The American Lawyer, and one of the Top 100 Attorneys in California by the Daily Journal.