The Sexting Scandal That Toppled One of America's Most Powerful Lawyers

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Former Latham & Watkins LLP Chairman William Voge.

Former Latham & Watkins LLP Chairman William Voge.


Photo:

Ryan Dorgan for The Wall Street Journal

It had been two days since

William Voge

was publicly disgraced, and the 61-year-old globe-trotting lawyer couldn’t sleep.

His family, his colleagues and competitors, everyone it seemed, knew about the sexually explicit texts he exchanged last year with a woman he had never met in person, and still hasn’t. The fallout scandalized the legal profession and would cost Mr. Voge his job at Latham & Watkins LLP, one of the highest grossing law firms in the world, where he was chairman.

Mr. Voge slipped out of his $5 million house in Solana Beach, Calif., that night in March. He went to a nearby bar where he looked over hundreds of messages on his phone—some sympathetic, others shaming. His wife and grown daughter had asked hours earlier when it would all die down.

On a business trip in November, Mr. Voge spent two nights sexting with a married mother of three. After the woman told others, including at the law firm, Mr. Voge threatened legal action, which only provoked more trouble.

“I was irrational, I was stupid and I was reckless,” Mr. Voge told The Wall Street Journal.

He sat at the bar that night drinking India pale ale, and his thoughts grew darker as he went over in his mind all that happened. He could never understand suicide, he said, until he experienced such deep feelings of shame firsthand.

Mr. Voge and the Chicago-area woman,

Andrea Vassell,

never had a physical relationship. The repercussions of their entanglement have nevertheless been costly.

Legal Elite

Latham & Watkins LLP has over the past decade become one of the highest grossing law firms in the world.

Revenue

$3 billion

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’17

’14

’13

’12

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2008

’16

’15

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7

3

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1

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4

4

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Global Revenue Ranking

Headcount

3 thousand attorneys

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’13

2008

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Source: The American Lawyer

Partners at Latham, which counts such clients as Citibank and

American Airlines
,

earn an average of more than $3 million a year. Mr. Voge, who grew up on a farm in Iowa, had made twice that before his abrupt departure in March from a law firm where he spent his entire 35-year career.

Ms. Vassell, 43, is under investigation by the police department in Naperville, Ill., where she lives, for alleged harassment by electronic means, a misdemeanor offense. She denied wrongdoing, and said in an interview that telling others what happened between her and Mr. Voge wasn’t a crime. She said Mr. Voge tried to bully her into silence, which he denied.

Mr. Voge went to the police, he said, because Ms. Vassell bombarded him and others with harassing emails about their liaison that included untruths.

The lawyer and suburban mom left behind a long record of their electronic relationship—a monthslong cascade of emails and texts that tracked a roller-coaster path from courtesy to intimacy to anger, according to exchanges viewed by the Journal.

Mr. Voge and Ms. Vassell say they feel betrayed by the other. They continue to obsess over what happened, facing strained marriages and humiliation. They accuse each other of lying. Both say they will be vindicated when the complete set of text exchanges is revealed by police or in court.

Mr. Voge said he has mulled over his therapists’ theories that chemicals in his “heathen, sex-oriented” brain took over his more rational side while he was away from his wife in Chicago. “I think that if you commit any sin,” he said, “the worst thing you can do is deny your sin.”

For her part, Ms. Vassell said she has a problem with sending impulsive emails. “Don’t you think we both could be at fault?” she said.

Chance encounter

It happened that Ms. Vassell met Mr. Voge through the New Canaan Society, a national group of Christian businessmen. “The pressures and temptations for men are great,” the group says on its website. “NCS gives guys a place to form deep friendships.”

Ms. Vassell began communicating with the group about a year ago. Her emails reached the board, which includes corporate executives, investment managers and evangelical leaders. She wrote that the founder of the New Canaan Society,

James Lane,

paid to have sex with her in Chicago around the time he began organizing the group in the mid-1990s.

Ms. Vassell had been the victim of sex trafficking, she wrote, and Mr. Lane, more than 20 years older, was the first man she was sent to. Their relationship lasted from 1995 to 1997, she said. Mr. Lane has acknowledged having a relationship with Ms. Vassell in the past. Through his lawyer, he declined to comment for this article.

In the emails, Ms. Vassell sought acknowledgment from Mr. Lane about his role in what she described as a low point in her life. Ms. Vassell kept sending emails asking that the New Canaan Society remove Mr. Lane from its website and for the group to disband.

Her reconnection with Mr. Lane came by chance. A pastor had recommended a biography of German theologian and anti-Nazi dissident

Dietrich Bonhoeffer,

she said. The book had an endorsement from Mr. Lane and mentioned his Christian men’s group. It triggered old memories and spurred her into action.

By chance, a book blurb from New Canaan Society founder James Lane caught the attention of Andrea Vassell, setting into motion events that led to the toppling of William Voge, the former chairman of Latham & Watkins LLP.

By chance, a book blurb from New Canaan Society founder James Lane caught the attention of Andrea Vassell, setting into motion events that led to the toppling of William Voge, the former chairman of Latham & Watkins LLP.


Photo:

Sara Randazzo/The Wall Street Journal

After Ms. Vassell’s emails arrived, Mr. Lane sought help from Mr. Voge, who was a longtime friend. The men had met in the 1990s while working in London—Mr. Voge for Latham, and Mr. Lane for

Goldman Sachs
.

They attended St. Michael’s Chester Square Church, where Mr. Voge, his wife and Mr. Lane’s wife taught Sunday school together. Mr. Voge later joined the New Canaan Society board.

Mr. Voge in September became the group’s contact with Ms. Vassell. He encouraged Ms. Vassell and Mr. Lane to attend a Christian mediation and reconcile their differences. “A home run is if the two come out smiling and saying they forgive each other,” Mr. Voge said in a recent interview.

In his early emails, Mr. Voge expressed sympathy to Ms. Vassell, saying he had worked with organizations that fight sex trafficking. “I am very sorry this happened to you. I also understand how that hurt became deeper when the wounds were reopened,” he wrote Sept. 4.

In another email, he said: “Go ahead and cause irritation to Jim—he wounded you,” but spare Mr. Lane’s family.

Ms. Vassell said she too had a Christian awakening, at age 23. She studied computer science and theology, she said, and married

Richard Vassell,

an IT professional, in 1999. They settled in a 3,000-square-foot brick house on a tree-lined cul-de-sac in Naperville, Ill.

The exchanges with Mr. Lane and the New Canaan Society triggered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, Ms. Vassell said, and she sought help from therapists and pastors. She saw Mr. Voge as another sympathetic ear.

Mr. Voge finally persuaded Ms. Vassell and Mr. Lane to agree to mediation.

William Voge sat at a desk Thursday at his house in Jackson, Wyo.

William Voge sat at a desk Thursday at his house in Jackson, Wyo.


Photo:

Ryan Dorgan for The Wall Street Journal

Throughout his law career, Mr. Voge relied on his calm under pressure, for being able to set aside emotions as he worked his way up the ranks.

After high school in rural Iowa, Mr. Voge enlisted in the U.S. Army, learning to intercept Russian communications while stationed in Germany. He used the GI Bill to earn an accounting degree at California State University, Fresno. He started law school at the University of California, Davis, and transferred to UC Berkeley to finish a law degree and earn an M.B.A. His wife, at the time just a Berkeley classmate, helped him rekindle his Christian faith, he said.

In 1983, Mr. Voge began work in the San Diego office of Latham & Watkins, at the time a primarily West Coast firm. He said he felt out of place in those early years compared with his better-credentialed colleagues, but didn’t quit.

Mr. Voge raised his hand to help expand the firm’s offices in New York and London. He developed a specialty: advising lenders and borrowers on international oil-and-gas infrastructure projects. He crisscrossed the globe for projects in Pakistan, Russia, Venezuela and Qatar, joining American Airlines’s 8 million-mile club.

In January 2015, Mr. Voge took over as chairman of the 2,600-lawyer firm. He followed

Robert Dell,

who through two decades had expanded Latham from its Los Angeles roots into a global powerhouse.

During his tenure, Mr. Voge said, he pushed for the promotion of minorities and women.

Bad to worse

In November, Mr. Voge flew to Chicago for firm meetings. On Sunday night, he said, he began preparing an annual financial update for his 700 partners.

While working on the presentation, he and Ms. Vassell swapped emails about the continuing dispute with Mr. Lane. Then they began texting—he at the Langham hotel, she at home 40 miles away.

At first, the messages were innocent, discussing what he was doing that week in Chicago. The talk turned flirtatious, then sexual.

The steamy back-and-forth went on for more than an hour. Going to bed around 11 p.m., Mr. Voge said he recalled thinking, “What the heck did I just do?” Later in the week, he did it again by text. They also emailed and spoke briefly by phone. They talked about meeting in person but never did.

Mr. Voge finished his meetings and boarded a plane to Mexico to meet his family for Thanksgiving. His remorse began on the first-class flight to the family’s vacation home in Baja California, outside Cabo Pulmo.

He wondered how he could explain his actions to his wife, a former lawyer who now ran an ice cream shop with their daughter.

“I knew it was wrong,” Mr. Voge said.

The Voges, their five grown children and three spouses were together on Thanksgiving in Mexico. The family roasted a whole pig in the yard.

The next Monday, Ms. Vassell emailed copies of the explicit text messages with Mr. Voge to Mr. Lane and to the New Canaan Society’s chief executive.

William Voge and his wife, Jami Voge, at a 2015 gala in New York City.

William Voge and his wife, Jami Voge, at a 2015 gala in New York City.


Photo:

Mark Von Holden/Invision/Associated Press

Mr. Voge resigned by email from the Christian group’s board. “I may have caused us more grief than I was trying to resolve,” he wrote. “It was not my intention to ever make matters worse.”

Then Mr. Voge told his wife. He said he had planned to tell her before Ms. Vassell sent the emails. The Voges cut short their vacation and returned to Solana Beach.

Mr. Voge in a phone call with Latham management offered to resign as chairman. They didn’t accept.

That week, Mr. Voge spoke with Ms. Vassell by phone and sent an apology by text. He said he wanted no further contact. She responded that she would neither accept his apology nor be silent.

“You are insane if you think I am not coming after you with everything I have,” she wrote. “…Men abuse and exploit women and then the church that is dominated by male Elders steps forward and tells the women to forgive. That stupid sh— stops with me!”

On Nov. 30, Mr. Voge’s lawyer,

Terry Ekl,

sent a letter by messenger to her home that threatened legal action if she didn’t stop contacting Mr. Voge, his law firm or anyone affiliated with him. The letter said Mr. Voge would “pursue every criminal and civil remedy…including the reporting of this criminal activity to the law enforcement authorities.”

When the letter arrived, Ms. Vassell said, “I just lost it.”

Ms. Vassell emailed a copy of the letter to two Latham partners and wrote, “I’m very scared.” The next day, she emailed Latham’s general counsel,

Everett Johnson

: “I wanted to be clear that I’m not accusing Bill Voge of any kind of sexual misconduct from my perspective. We were consenting adults.”

By November, accusations of assault and harassment against Hollywood producer

Harvey Weinstein

had triggered similar reports against other men. As more women came forward, corporate America began to contend with allegations of misconduct by men in positions of power.

Ms. Vassell continued sending emails about Mr. Voge to New Canaan Society members, Latham partners, the head of a competing law firm and, later, to a few media outlets. She also emailed

Jami Voge,

Mr. Voge’s wife.

From December to April, Ms. Vassell sent more than 90 emails to Mr. Voge. In some, she said he had done nothing wrong and that she was upset she couldn’t be with him. In others, she lashed out at him. Many included sexual fantasies. In one, she said she had pleaded guilty to harassment in 1998.

“I was just impulsively emailing,” Ms. Vassell said. “I was not sleeping. It was a struggle.”

Last straw

On Jan. 27, Ms. Vassell sent a lengthy email to more than 50 New Canaan Society chapter leaders, saying she was “enraged at Bill Voge” and demanding accountability for his actions. Mr. Voge read it from a second vacation home in Jackson, Wyo., and said it “sent me over the deep end.”

The next day Mr. Voge received a text from Richard Vassell, Ms. Vassell’s husband. They had communicated cordially earlier that month, but this time Mr. Voge said that Ms. Vassell was committing crimes and would go to jail if she didn’t stop.

“Richard, it is not threats about jail,” Mr. Voge wrote. “She will be in jail!!!”

In another text, Mr. Voge said, “She has committed multiple felonies and the evidence is overwhelming.”

That same weekend, Mr. Voge’s lawyer, Mr. Ekl, sent an email to Ms. Vassell urging her to stop telling people about her interactions with Mr. Voge or risk legal action. Ms. Vassell asked if she could speak about it with her pastor and therapists. Mr. Ekl said she could as long as she told him.

The emails from Ms. Vassell slowed. She said she later believed she was coerced into agreeing to Mr. Ekl’s demands. “I just felt so micro-controlled,” she said. “It was so much pressure.”

In early March, Mr. Voge and his wife left for a vacation in South America. While in Buenos Aires, an attorney called Mr. Voge’s lawyer and said he represented Ms. Vassell. He said Ms. Vassell and a reporter at the legal trade publication Law360 were discussing her communications with Mr. Voge.

The lawyer,

Michael Cheronis,

said Ms. Vassell’s cooperation with the publication would stop for a consideration of “at least six figures,” according to Mr. Ekl.

Ms. Vassell said she never wanted money from anyone involved and never gave the lawyer permission to ask for any. Soon after hiring Mr. Cheronis, she said, she told him to stop speaking for her. Mr. Cheronis said he couldn’t comment without Ms. Vassell’s consent.

Mr. Voge said he refused to make any payments. He and his wife again returned home early from vacation, skipping a planned hike in Patagonia.

The same day the Voges left for South America, Ms. Vassell emailed copies of the heated text exchanges between Mr. Voge and her husband to Latham’s general counsel. By the time the Voges returned, Latham’s executive committee had read the texts and were reconsidering his resignation offer.

In mid-March, the law firm’s leadership gathered in Virginia and called Mr. Voge in California. They said they had decided to accept his resignation and asked him to retire immediately.

The firm issued a statement on March 20, saying Mr. Voge’s “lapses in personal judgment made continued service as chair untenable” and that the conduct, while unrelated to the firm, was not befitting a Latham leader. Law360 reported that day on the texts between Mr. Voge and Ms. Vassell, as well as those with Ms. Vassell’s husband.

Ten days after losing his job, Mr. Voge sent Latham’s partnership an email: “For those of you who had the courage to tell me of your disappointment, I want you to know that your disappointment in me will never exceed my own disappointment in myself.”

Write to Sara Randazzo at sara.randazzo@wsj.com