April 03, 2024

Attorney Spotlight: Theresa Van Vliet on Her Tenure at the Department of Justice and the Increasing Complexity of White Collar Investigations

5 min

A partner in Venable’s Miami office, Theresa Van Vliet concentrates her practice on white collar and securities litigation, along with international fraud and money laundering matters. In this Q&A, Theresa looks back over her time at the Department of Justice, where she successfully tried numerous federal jury trials, her work in disrupting international drug trafficking rings, and her approach to white collar investigations.

Q. You had a very interesting tenure at the Department of Justice (DOJ) and were recognized by the attorney general for your work. How did you get to work in the DOJ, and what stands out from that time?

A. I ended up at the Department of Justice because the judge I was working for at the time in the Southern District of Florida encouraged me to apply, and I was lucky enough to be hired. This was in the 1980s, when it was a little hectic down here in Florida in terms of drugs, guns, and organized crime and the money that flowed from that. From a professional perspective, the most interesting thing to me was being able to get involved in so many differing and complex organizational crimes, including drug crimes and related financial crimes. Then I ended up taking charge of a task force focusing on the Cali Cartel—a drug cartel based in Colombia.

Q. What did that involve?

A. I had to do a whole bunch of wiretaps on the cartel members, and then worked with law enforcement and judges in Colombia to try to bring them to justice. I also did some training with Colombian law enforcement. Ultimately, I was brought up to Washington, DC, where the work expanded into a whole range of interesting cases, including some investigatory work into Osama Bin Laden and other cases of a classified nature. It was a constant challenge.

Q. You were awarded a Distinguished Service Medal by the government of Colombia. What led to that recognition?

A. It was awarded to me shortly after an effort I participated in called Operation Millennium, which helped disrupt a consortium of Colombian drug trafficking networks that were flooding the United States with cocaine. I’d left the main justice department by then and was back in Miami working as a senior litigation counsel. The case involved the attorney general’s office in Colombia, and we did a lot of wiretaps and shared evidence with them. It was one of the first evidence-sharing operations we carried out with the Colombian government, and it was one of the first major cases to be tried after the Colombian Supreme Court started allowing extradition again.

Q. Why did you decide to go into private practice, and how did the legal work you do change, when you left the Department of Justice?

A. By the time I left Justice, I had already put in about 20 years. There was only so much higher I could go without getting a judicial appointment, which I didn’t want at that stage of my career. So, I went into private practice, where most of my work these days involves representing bankruptcy trustees and litigating on behalf of creditors in the bankruptcy arena. As it happens, this work involves many of the same skills I developed while investigating drug crimes and the related money laundering. But, of course, I continue to do white collar criminal defense.

Q. Over the course of your career working on white collar investigations, has your approach to handling these types of cases changed?

A. I was talking to some of the other partners in Venable’s Investigative and White Collar Group recently about some of the novel legal issues we’re witnessing. New technologies certainly keep things interesting. I’m old enough to remember when we used to tap payphones. Nowadays, it’s a lot more sophisticated. But the legal standard for obtaining records from an internet service provider or a wireless communication are the same as they’ve always been. They do get tweaked occasionally, but the principle is the same. It’s more a matter of making sure that you educate yourself about what the new technologies are and how they are being used, so you know how to best prove the point you’re trying to make.

Q. With all the advances in technology, has the nature of white collar crimes changed significantly?

A. If you think about it in terms of money laundering, the laws apply the same way to bags of cash as they would to a transfer of cryptocurrency. But the commission of crimes certainly has changed, and criminals are very good at leveraging whatever new technology is out there. But that’s been the case since time immemorial. On the flip side, new technologies also help law enforcement. When you’re as long in the tooth as I am, you get to understand how criminals go about adapting to that.

Q. Your previous firm recently joined with Venable. Has being with a much larger firm made a difference to your approach to figuring out how a crime was committed?

A. If you’re doing an internal investigation for a client, the things you look out for are the same as they’ve always been, in that you get to know what a criminal would have had to do to be successful. Then you just have to figure out the right trail to go down. It certainly helps to have a slew of sophisticated colleagues across the firm who are extremely well versed in all the new technologies that are out there. One of the hallmarks of Venable is the collaborative nature of things. I’ve yet to find a single solitary soul who’s not willing to help you noodle through something late at night when you’re in the middle of a trial.

Learn more about Venable’s Investigations and White Collar Defense Practice.