David Weber never forgot a promise made to him during an interview for a job as a federal prosecutor. “If you come join us, you will have a life of unending entertainment,” the U.S. Treasury Department’s director of litigation told him.
That promise has panned out in the decades-long career that ensued, although “entertainment” may not be an apt description of the notorious financial fraud cases—from Ponzi schemes to money laundering to bank failures—on which Weber has worked.
One recent project does fall into the realm of entertainment. Weber served as the technical consultant for “The Laundromat,” the 2019 Netflix film about the Panama Papers scandal. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, the cast features Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas. Weber compared his role in the film to what he does as a University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) faculty member: “take something really complicated and confusing, and make it understandable for a college-age audience. Luckily, this is largely the same demographic of movie-watching Netflix subscribers.”
Weber not only worked on the script, but also was “on set for portions of the filming” and even made a cameo appearance as an investigative journalist. “(In the film) I am dressed in one of the same outfits I lecture in. When I went to costume … they looked me up and down and said, ‘You look just fine as you are.’ … Who knew that threadbare reporters and professors look so similar?”
Having served as the banking and money laundering expert for the Panama Papers investigation that broke in 2016—and winning a 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting, Weber was well qualified to consult on the film. The investigation “concerned the use of banking secrecy, shell companies and offshore havens to engage in really bad things,” he explained.
“Over 140 current and former world leaders were identified in the investigation as having engaged or benefited from money laundering, fraud, tax evasion, corruption, kleptocracy or other misconduct, including the prime ministers of the U.K., Iceland and Pakistan, as well as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and those closely connected with China’s Xi Jinping. Many of the shell accounts are Russian or Ukrainian connected.”
Weber’s involvement in the Panama Papers investigation began after Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Jake Bernstein guest lectured at his master’s-level course on fraud. The two became friends and later Bernstein, as lead U.S. reporter for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) investigation, asked Weber to help him review documents than turned out to be related to the hacking known as “the largest data breach of all time,” Weber said.
Participating in the ICIJ review were “more than 300 reporters, on almost every continent,” according to Weber. And “the data indicated some extraordinary money laundering and banking transactions.” Bernstein, he noted, led “portions of the investigations” related to “data (that) concerned powerful people in dangerous places for reporters—places where there is no freedom of the press, or even personal safety.”
“The documents I first reviewed were bank loan documents from Russian-controlled banks for hundreds of millions of dollars to shell companies purportedly controlled by a cellist and violinist employed by the St. Petersburg, Russia, Orchestra,” Weber said. “Ultimately, the investigation revealed those loans were really for the benefit of Vladimir Putin and his family.”
In addition, he said, “The investigation also revealed disturbing connections to a former SS Nazi officer, the father of one of the key subjects of the investigation.”
Weber described Bernstein’s 2017 “Secrecy World” as “a book about the Panama Papers investigation generally, and about the use of shell companies, offshore havens and money laundering specifically.” He helped Bernstein with “discussions of the steps of how money laundering and bank secrecy works … in explaining the concepts of money laundering in ways that a broad reading audience could understand.”
Netflix Studios bought the movie rights and made “The Laundromat.”
Weber’s legal career has given him many other stories to tell. Early in his career, he said, “I investigated a Ponzi scheme and money laundering in the Ozarks, went after CEOs and bank chairmen all over the South, had my first executive flee the country, and had a bank president die under mysterious circumstances. … But that is a different screenplay.”
Later, as the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s chief investigator, Weber said he “unfortunately got foisted into the position of becoming a whistleblower, reporting misconduct in the investigations of some of the largest financial frauds in U.S. history: the Bernard L. Madoff and R. Allen Stanford Ponzi schemes.”
Subsequently, Weber became involved in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. “I represented a key witness in the cases against Rick Gates, and then Paul Manafort, the president’s former campaign manager. The key issues in that case dealt with secret payments from Ukraine,” he said. “Ultimately, my client was granted complete immunity for her testimony. She walked away, while most did not. She walked away because she told the truth.”
These days, Weber has more time for his family, splitting his time between his private practice’s Kentlands and Chincoteague Island offices. “I practice law, helping everyday good people with their problems,” he said. The firm’s five attorneys, including his wife, he noted, “met years ago, at a Lakelands social gathering.” Paring down to part-time at UMGC, he teaches one undergraduate fraud and investigative accounting course.
Weber, the New York City-born and raised son of immigrants and “the first person in my immediate family to become a professional and to speak English as a native language,” has come a long way. “As was promised to me at Treasury,” he said, “It’s been a life of unending entertainment practicing law, and only more so now in private practice.”