Catherine Rampell: Matthew Whitaker has experience advising con artists. Will he help more under Trump?

FILE - In this April 24, 2014, file photo, then-Iowa Republican senatorial candidate and former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker watches before a live televised debate in Johnston, Iowa. President Donald Trump announced in a tweet that he was naming Whitaker, as acting attorney general, after Attorney General Jeff Sessions was pushed out Nov. 7, 2018, as the country's chief law enforcement officer after enduring more than a year of blistering and personal attacks from Trump over his recusal from the Russia investigation. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

Washington - Many assume Matthew G. Whitaker was chosen as acting attorney general because he criticized the Russia probe, said he would have indicted Hillary Clinton and otherwise looks like a die-hard Trump loyalist.

But maybe Whitaker really was picked because he has experience advising con artists.

Whitaker, after all, was involved with a Miami-based firm that federal regulators shut down last year as an alleged scam. The firm, World Patent Marketing, promised aspiring inventors that it would patent and market their brainchildren, based on what a 17-page Federal Trade Commission complaint characterized as bogus "success stories" and other false claims.

Among the many, many ways this company hoodwinked customers, according to the FTC complaint: It claimed its customers' inventions were sold in "big box" stores such as Walmart and Target, when in fact none were; it claimed it owned a manufacturing plant in China, though no such plant existed; and it said its board of advisers ("Invention Team Advisory Board") personally reviewed customers' invention ideas, when the board did no such thing.

The company allegedly bilked some customers out of their life savings and threw others deeply into debt; a Miami New Times expose found that some had lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. In return, the company "provided almost no service," according to the FTC.

Just as bad, when customers complained or asked for refunds, the FTC said, the company resorted to threats and intimidation.

Sometimes this involved ominous references to World Patent Marketing's "intimidating security team, all ex-Israeli Special Ops and trained in Krav Maga, one of the most deadly of the martial arts."

Mostly, the message came from lawyers. Including Whitaker.

Whitaker was on the World Patent Marketing's "Invention Team Advisory Board" — yes, that body the FTC said was falsely advertised as reviewing customers' creations. The company touted Whitaker's credentials as a former U.S. attorney and Republican Senate candidate. Whitaker publicly vouched for the firm in promotional materials.

In exchange, he received $9,375 between 2014 and early 2016; the company's chief executive also donated $2,600 to Whitaker's Senate campaign, and the company owed him an additional $7,500 at the time the FTC moved to seize it.

Whitaker is not personally named in the FTC complaint, and we don't know the extent of his day-to-day involvement with the company. But he does not appear to have been a totally passive observer.

Among its court exhibits, the FTC included a 2015 email Whitaker sent while acting on behalf of the company. In the email, which cited his U.S. attorney credentials and his corporate board seat, he told an unhappy customer that filing a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, or "smearing" the company online, could result in "serious civil and criminal consequences."

The company ultimately settled with the FTC without admitting or denying blame and was served with a partially suspended judgment of $26 million. Board members were asked to repay the money they had received; Whitaker, however, didn't respond to a demand letter, the court-appointed receiver told the Wall Street Journal.

Given all this, why was Whitaker chosen for an (acting) Cabinet post? Presumably because a Nigerian prince wasn't available.

Trump clearly loves to surround himself with fellow hucksters, snake-oil salesmen and others accused of questionable business behavior.

Recall that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos backed a "brain performance" firm that advertised 90 percent success rates in curing illnesses such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, despite having no such evidence. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson shilled for a miracle-cure dietary supplement company and continued doing so even after it settled a deceptive-marketing case with the state of Texas. A land deal involving Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is under federal investigation.

And so on and so on.

There’s also the grifter in chief. Besides the myriad contractors and small businesses he has stiffed over the years, President Trump recently settled a case over Trump University. Which — in separating naive customers from big sums of money while failing to fulfill the promises it made to them — looks an awful lot like World Patent Marketing.

If Trump’s other appointments are any clue, Whitaker can be expected to exercise his newfound authority to help even more con artists — not just his boss, who clearly wants the Russia probe hobbled, but also others who stand to benefit from further scaling back Justice Department enforcement of white-collar crime.

Which, by the way, is already way down under the Trump administration.

This, after all, is what Trump administration officials mean when they hawk "free markets": Scammers and swindlers get to roam free.

Catherine Rampell

Catherine Rampell’s email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.