A Virginia lawyer who helped represent the first Roundup cancer plaintiff to take Monsanto to trial pleaded guilty on Friday to trying to extort $200 million from a chemical compound supplier to Monsanto.
Timothy Litzenburg, 38, admitted to a scheme in which he and another lawyer threatened to inflict substantial “financial and reputational harm” on the supplier unless that company paid the two attorneys $200 million disguised as a “consulting agreement.”
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Litzenburg allegedly told the company that if they paid the money, he was willing to “take a dive” during a deposition, intentionally undermining the prospects for future plaintiffs to try to sue.
Litzenburg was charged with one count each of attempted extortion, conspiracy and transmission of interstate communications with intent to extort. He pleaded guilty to one count of transmitting interstate communications with the intent to extort.
Lawyer Daniel Kincheloe, 41, pleaded guilty to the same charge for participating in the scheme. The men are scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 18 in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia.
“This is a case where two attorneys blew well past the line of aggressive advocacy and crossed deep into the territory of illegal extortion, in a brazen attempt to enrich themselves by extracting millions of dollars from a multinational company,” Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski said in a statement. He said that the plea shows that “when crimes are committed, members of the bar, like all members of the public, will be held accountable for their actions.”
Litzenburg was one of the attorneys for Dewayne “Lee” Johnson leading up to Johnson’s 2018 trial against Monsanto, which resulted in a $289 million jury award in Johnson’s favor. (The judge in the case lowered the verdict and the case is currently under appeal.)
The trial was the first of three that have taken place against Monsanto over allegations that the company’s glyphosate-based herbicides such as Roundup cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Monsanto, and its German owner Bayer AG, have lost all three trials to date but are appealing the verdicts.
Though Litzenburg had helped prepare Johnson for trial, he was not allowed to participate during the actual event because of concerns about his behavior held by The Miller Firm, which was his employer at the time.
The Miller firm subsequently fired Litzenburg and filed a lawsuit in early 2019 alleging Litzenburg engaged in self-dealing, and “disloyal and erratic conduct.” Litzenburg responded with a counter-claim. The parties negotiated a confidential settlement.
The criminal complaint against Litzenburg did not name the company Litzenburg tried to extort, but said that he contacted the company in September of 2019 year stating that he was preparing a lawsuit that would allege the company supplied chemical compounds used by Monsanto to create Roundup and that the company knew the ingredients were carcinogenic but had failed to warn the public.
According to the federal charges, Litzenburg told a lawyer for the company he was trying to extort that the company should enter into a “consulting arrangement” with him so as to create a conflict of interest that would prevent him from filing the threatened litigation.
Litzenburg wrote in the email that the $200 million consulting agreement for himself and an associate was “a very reasonable price,” according to the criminal complaint.
Federal investigators recorded a phone call with Litzenburg discussing the $200 million he was seeking, the complaint states. Litzenburg was allegedly recorded as saying: “The way that I guess you guys will think about it and we’ve thought about it too is savings for your side. I don’t think if this gets filed and turns into mass tort, even if you guys win cases and drive value down… I don’t think there’s any way you get out of it for less than a billion dollars. And so, you know, to me, uh, this is a fire sale price that you guys should consider…”
Litzenburg claimed to be representing roughly 1,000 clients suing Monsanto over Roundup cancer causation allegations at the time of his arrest last year.