Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has provided a public accounting of his firm’s work at the Supreme Court that began five years ago with security at justices’ homes, for their travels and in courtroom operations, confirming CNN’s exclusive reporting related to Chertoff’s endorsement of the court’s investigation of a leaked abortion decision.
In a new letter to congressional Democrats, he also provides some details and the timing of Chief Justice John Roberts’ request to The Chertoff Group for its review of the court’s inquiry into the source of the unprecedented leak of the Dobbs decision reversing nearly a half century of abortion rights.
Chertoff was first contacted by Chief Justice John Roberts in November 2022 and received investigative files and interview transcripts, he said in a March 15 letter provided to CNN by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat who chairs a subcommittee overseeing the judiciary. Chertoff said his firm conducted no additional investigation or interviews.
“Some of the investigative files included transcripts or summaries of phone conversations that were provided to investigators, but our primary focus was on a review of documentary evidence,” Chertoff wrote.
Chertoff did not provide details about those summaries or any information about the money his firm was paid for work on its review or its prior services. CNN earlier had reported that the firm’s contracts with the Supreme Court exceeded $1 million.
The Chertoff Group earlier referred questions about its business with the court to court officials. The court had no immediate response to questions about Chertoff’s work. Neither has been accused of wrongdoing.
The high court enlisted Chertoff to publicly vouch in January for the court’s inconclusive report on the premature disclosure of the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which was published by Politico last May. Neither the court nor Chertoff disclosed their prior financial relationships, which might have undercut Chertoff’s seal of approval in the public eye.
Responding to Whitehouse and Georgia Democratic Rep. Henry “Hank” Johnson, who questioned Chertoff after CNN’s report on a potential conflict of interest, Chertoff wrote that Roberts’ staff had earlier sought the firm’s assistance beginning in 2018 “on a variety of matters related to protecting the Justices, including at their homes and while travelling.”
“In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic,” he continued, “the Court requested that we assist them in developing a pandemic risk management plan for Court employees and their courtroom operations. In 2021, the Supreme Court asked that we again advise on matters designed to protect the Court premises, employees, and members of the public.”
The congressional letter came after CNN reported that Chertoff’s financial relationship was kept confidential as the justices touted him as an expert who had independently validated its leak investigation, which failed to turn up any culprit.
Their February 23 letter said, “The Court’s failure to explain adequately why it felt a third-party review was necessary, how it chose that reviewer, and its preexisting relationship with the reviewer all warrant additional clarity.”
The early leak of the opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, written by Justice Samuel Alito and joined by four fellow conservatives, represented an unprecedented disclosure of a draft document. It had the effect of hardening that narrow 5-4 vote and stymieing internal debate in the case.
The investigation, overseen by the court’s marshal, Gail Curley, failed to identify anyone responsible for the disclosure. Her 20-page report detailed some of the steps in the inquiry, including 126 formal interviews of 97 employees, but also noted some of the loose protocol that might have contributed to the leak. For example, about 100 people had access to the draft opinion at the outset and many employees printed out multiple copies.
In a one-page statement issued with the report in late January, Chertoff wrote that Curley “undertook a thorough investigation” and said he could not identify any other measure that should have been taken.
Chertoff wrote at the time that Roberts had asked him “to independently review and assess the thoroughness of the investigation into the Dobbs draft opinion leak and to identify any additional useful investigative measures as well as actions that would improve the handling of sensitive documents in the future.”
The Supreme Court’s own statement on the matter emphasized Chertoff’s seal of approval. Nowhere in the materials provided did the justices mention Chertoff had previously been on previous security-related contracts.
CNN had learned from sources familiar with the arrangements that the court had privately contracted with The Chertoff Group for security assessments at the justices’ homes and separately related to Covid-19 protocols. Chertoff in his March 15 letter did not disclose the amounts of the contracts for his work.
He said the firm was retained for the leak investigation review as in an addendum to a prior contract.
Chertoff, who has run a security firm since 2009, also acknowledged but minimized his relationships with justices in the letter to Capitol Hill, writing that he does “not maintain regular social relationships” with any of them. But, he said that over nearly 50 years in the law and public service he has “had periodic interactions with many of them, mostly in public social settings.” More than 15 years ago he served as a judge with now-Justice Samuel Alito on the 3rd US Circuit Court of Appeals and also had worked with Alito when Alito was the US attorney for New Jersey.
“Lastly, I have had occasional social exchanges with several Justices over the past 15 years, mostly at widely attended events.”