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CEOs linked to a high-ranking Navy admiral fight bribery allegations in the US

Two top executives at a New York-based technology company are joining the highest-ranking U.S. Navy admiral ever charged with bribery in a fight against the charges, challenging federal prosecutors’ decision to open a case against what one of their lawyers called “politically motivated” corruption in the military.

Charlie Kim, 50, and Meghan Messenger, 47, are scheduled to plead not guilty in Washington, D.C., on Monday, along with retired four-star Admiral Robert P. Burke, 62, the Navy’s former second-ranking officer and commander in chief in Europe and Africa. The three were charged four weeks ago with conspiracy to commit bribery and corruption because Burke allegedly agreed to give Next Jump an exclusive contract and help it win future Navy contracts in exchange for the promise of a $500,000-a-year job and stock options after his retirement.

In their first public statements on the case, lawyers for the company and the accused co-CEOs criticized the Justice Department’s handling of the investigation and suggested that prosecutors were fixated on grabbing a desirable target.

“For 30 years, Next Jump’s co-CEOs built an impeccable reputation as developers of some of the U.S. government’s most respected leadership programs, and it appears they have now been unfairly caught in a bureaucratic, politically motivated government crossfire,” Messenger attorney Rocco F. D’Agostino said in a written statement.

Next Jump’s attorney, Reed Brodsky, a former federal prosecutor in Manhattan who co-leads the litigation practice at the law firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, said he was “very disappointed” with the government’s actions in the months leading up to the indictment.

“We tried multiple times to present evidence and witnesses to the government after a single presentation, but surprisingly the government refused to hear anything we had to say. They refused to meet with Next Jump’s legal counsel or even question Next Jump about the additional evidence we said we had in our possession,” Brodsky said.

Kim’s attorney William A. Burck, Quinn Emanuel, co-managing director of one of Washington’s leading corporate law firms, has also joined the case. Burck, a former White House counsel under George W. Bush, has represented a number of high-profile Republican clients, including former Trump White House counsel Donald McGahn and political strategist Stephen K. Bannon in the Justice Department’s Russia investigation. He also represented Robert K. Hur, the special counsel who investigated President Biden’s possession of classified documents after he left the vice presidency, and former Virginia first lady Maureen McDonnell, whose federal corruption convictions along with her husband, then-Governor Bob McDonnell, were overturned on appeal.

“Charlie Kim would never – for any reason – risk everything he has built and his reputation in the global business community, much less for a contract that had only negligible consequences for his business,” Burck said in a statement. “To be clear, Mr. Kim vehemently denies any involvement in the alleged conspiracy or bribery scheme and has no intention of backing down. We are confident that he will be treated fairly by the court and jury and that he will ultimately be exonerated.”

A spokeswoman for the DCUS Attorney’s Office and the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Division declined to comment, saying: “We cannot comment on an ongoing criminal case.”

Legal experts said Kim and Messenger’s combative defense is notable because prosecutors in conspiracy cases almost always try to “turn” lesser-known co-defendants and leverage their cooperation against top targets like Burke. The defense’s claims also raise the stakes for the Pentagon and the Justice Department, which would be expected to have a watertight case given Burke’s high rank and recent setbacks in public corruption cases, legal experts said.

“Hopefully the Justice Department has sorted things out and put together a case that will stand up to scrutiny, because these cases are very difficult to prove,” said Scott Amey, general counsel for the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight. “It’s very important for the Justice Department and the Defense Department to protect our contracting system and make sure that people at the top levels aren’t thinking about lining their own pockets or their future employers.”

The Justice Department is still grappling with the fallout from its handling of the worst corruption scandal in Navy history, involving disgraced defense contractor Leonard “Fat Leonard” Francis. The scandal came to a head after defense attorneys claimed prosecutors relied on faulty evidence and withheld information that would benefit the defense. U.S. prosecutors in May moved to dismiss charges against five convicted defendants and said as many as two dozen other cases could be affected by an ongoing review of 34 trials in which 29 defendants were found guilty.

Meanwhile, the Navy has faced criticism that lower-ranking officers are arrested and prosecuted while the top brass evades accountability because disciplinary action for the most senior leaders is almost always handled internally. Burke has said he became involved with Next Jump in 2016, around the time the Navy was looking to overhaul its leadership training programs after the Fat Leonard scandal. He has said he approached the company the following year as the Navy’s chief of human resources, when the Navy was facing another crisis over leadership and readiness deficiencies brought to light by two fatal collisions in June and August 2017 involving the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John McCain that killed 17 sailors.

Burke’s case “is critical for the Justice Department to recover from the utter disaster of the Fat Leonard investigation,” said Michael R. Sherwin, a former federal prosecutor who served as acting U.S. attorney for D.C. in 2020 and 2021. Sherwin recently represented a defendant in another recent U.S. Navy bribery case in which prosecutors dropped allegations of $50 million fraud.

Nearly all federal corruption cases “rely on cooperation” to get to a top target like Burke, Sherwin added. The fact that Kim and Messenger are fighting the charges “tells me that either the government has tried to reach them and they have refused; or that prosecutors believe the evidence against them — such as emails, text messages or recordings — is so strong that they don’t need it.”

According to charging documents, Burke supported a pilot personnel training program for a small Marine unit from August 2018 to July 2019 before the Navy terminated its contract with the company in November 2019. That same month, an employee of Burke’s instructed the company not to contact him further about “impending contract action” and his recent promotion to vice chief of naval operations. Burke served as the Navy’s highest-ranking officer for about a year, from June 2019 to June 2020, after his predecessor unexpectedly retired, before assuming the post of the Navy’s top officer in August 2019.

Despite that admonition, a 16-page indictment says, Kim, Messenger and Burke agreed at a meeting in July 2021 that he would use his position – then one of nine four-star admirals in the Navy – to award an exclusive contract to Next Jump in exchange for future employment and to persuade other officers to award a larger training contract worth $100 million or more.

Senior government officials are generally required to inform ethics committees when interviewing for a job and to recuse themselves from matters involving a potential future employer. Burke, however, misled the Navy and concealed his conflict of interest from them, the indictment alleges.

Burke’s attorney, Tim Parlatore, said his client never accepted a job at the first meeting and left the firm within months of joining in October 2022. Parlatore questioned the logic of the government’s claim that Next Jump offered a job with an annual salary of $500,000 in exchange for a $355,000 bonus.

Defenders of Kim and Messenger within the company agree. In documents posted on social media accounts and in the company’s internal communications, employees claim Burke misled Next Jump executives about the activities he and the Navy were doing with the company while telling them his actions were permitted.

Burke’s attorney, Parlatore, rejected that characterization, saying Burke “did not mislead anyone.” When Burke had serious discussions about employment with Next Jump, he had the Navy’s approval, Parlatore said, adding, “Admiral Burke did nothing wrong here, he conducted himself impeccably at all stages. There was no bribery, and we expect to go to trial and win.”

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