Ask prominent investigations attorney Ryan Sparacino how his personal history influenced his career path, and his answer is both quick and incisive: He’s a proud Army brat.
It’s a trait evidenced in his choice of heroes – soldiers and Marines rather than millionaire athletes or the cape-wearing crusaders of modern myth; the anti-terrorism cases he takes; and a fierce eagerness to fight for underdog clients trying to assert their rights against well-heeled, influential forces seeking to bend the law in their own favor.
A graduate of Northwestern University who earned his juris doctorate at the University of Virginia School of Law, Sparacino began his career at Big Law firms Winston & Strawn and Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman before taking a leadership role at a major private investigation firm and then forming his own practice, Sparacino, where he specializes in cases against financiers of global terrorism.
“I am a true believer in the mission,” Sparacino says. “Simple as that. These are the most important cases I will ever work on, and could help thousands of American heroes, my clients, obtain some small measure of justice. These cases also serve the broader purpose of making America safer from terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda, the IRGC, and Islamic State, to name three examples.”
Lawdragon: What was the first lawsuit you filed against financing of global terrorism, and when? What happened in that case and what were your takeaways in terms of building out your own firm dedicated to this arcane and highly complex practice?
Ryan Sparacino: On Oct. 17, 2017, my firm, Sparacino PLLC, along with our co-counsel (and lead counsel) at Kellogg, Hansen, Todd, Figel & Frederick, filed an Anti-Terrorism Act lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, GE Healthcare, AstraZeneca and Roche, which is captioned Atchley v. AstraZeneca and for which plaintiffs recently won a decisive victory before the D.C. Circuit.
In Atchley, plaintiffs allege that defendants – five large medical supply companies – deliberately paid large bribes in cash and “free goods” designed to be resold on the black market to a group of Iran-backed terrorists in Iraq known as Jaysh al-Mahdi after the terrorists seized Iraq’s Ministry of Health and multi-billion-dollar procurement budget. Plaintiffs allege that Defendants bribed terrorists to win the big contracts they controlled. Plaintiffs also allege it’s beyond serious dispute that four of the five defendants paid similar bribes to similarly situated Iraqi terrorist sponsors who controlled the Ministry of Health during the Oil-for-Food scandal from 2000 through 2003.
Investigating 'Dirty Money' Claims
My takeaway from working on the Atchley case was that I had found my professional calling. I care passionately about American military families, I was disgusted by what the defendants had done, and I was uniquely situated to make a difference given my particular set of investigative skills. When I saw that the Atchley defendants had no meritorious arguments for dismissing our clients’ complaint – as the D.C. Circuit confirmed, 3-0, on Jan. 4, 2022 – I concluded that my firm should seek to represent clients in other similarly strong ATA cases.
LD: That’s an impressive accomplishment, especially in such a complicated area. Tell me a little more about your background and how it has influenced your practice. Where did you grow up and what were your earliest notions of what a lawyer does?
RS: My family bounced all over the world before the U.S. Army stationed my father in northern Virginia (the Pentagon), where we put down roots. My dad is a Vietnam combat veteran, served as an officer in the Army for 20 years, and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel. My mother worked in a civilian capacity for the U.S. military as well and was devoted to American servicemember families, editing many of the foundational books used by the U.S. government to support servicemembers. She literally edited the USG-published book, The Military Family.
My mom, like my dad, understands service and sacrifice like I never could: Her only brother, her best friend, my uncle, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Charles Victor Wood, was grievously injured in Vietnam with wounds that ultimately claimed his life. His name is now etched into the Wall. I have no idea how it feels to lose a loved one in service to our country, but I love people who have gone through that experience. I never served myself, but my childhood instilled in me a reverence for those who do. My childhood heroes were soldiers and Marines, not superheroes. The same holds true today.
I always believed a lawyer is someone who gets into the legal arena to fight hard – but fairly and ethically – for their client, no matter the issue, because everyone in America deserves a great lawyer. So even as a child watching law shows on TV, and continuing through today, I’ve never been one to criticize defense attorneys just for defending alleged bad guys.
LD: I’ve heard you’re a two-time national debate champion. When did you begin doing debating and how have those skills played into your work as a lawyer?
RS: Unfortunately for my mother, probably when I was about 3 years old. As a competitive exercise, I began debating in high school in northern Virginia as a 14-year-old freshman and continued through my senior year in college at Northwestern University.
I loved competitive two-person policy debate – and still do – because I believe the single most important skill anyone can learn is the discipline to instinctively think of an issue from all sides, as opposed to just retreating to one’s own pre-conceived intellectual biases. Debate as an activity taught me how to construct a persuasive argument, the importance of marshaling factual evidence, and the necessity to keep an open mind and examine an issue from every possible perspective. As our society and politics become ever more polarized, I think these principles are more relevant than ever. And not to shamelessly plug former policy debaters for law firms, but I think that former policy debaters-turned-lawyers bring a significant advantage to almost anything they work on, and so it’s always a background experience we love to see in candidates.
Blackwater Shooting Case
LD: How would you describe your time in Big Law and what professional endeavors or lessons helped lay the foundation for your current practice?
RS: I enjoyed my Big Law career. I spent about a decade working in D.C., first at Winston & Strawn and later at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. At both places, I was one of the core investigations-oriented litigators, and I typically worked on complex matters that often had international components. Most of my Big Law career was spent investigating so-called “dirty money” allegations such as alleged violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, Travel Act and the like. I also represented the key cooperating witness in the Blackwater mass shooting case, which was a 10-year legal saga concerning violence in Baghdad in 2007.
I always believed a lawyer is someone who gets into the legal arena to fight hard – but fairly and ethically – for their client, no matter the issue, because everyone in America deserves a great lawyer.
In my Big Law career, the through-line was my role as the “on-the-ground investigations guy” for white collar and complex civil litigation teams I was on at Winston and Pillsbury. As in, literally, I was the guy who the partner would say, “You’re going to Kazakhstan in 48 hours,” and I’m on a flight to Almaty. I was grateful for this role, because I developed professional skills like how to investigate dirty money flows and gained practical investigative experiences in a vast array of European, Middle Eastern and Asian countries.
LD: You took an interesting detour into a career as a private investigator, which is unusual. Did you enjoy that? Is that where you got your appetite for digging into the financing of global terrorism?
RS: I was thrilled when Nardello & Co. brought me on board to re-launch their D.C. office. Nardello is, in my opinion, the finest private investigation company in the world, so it was a detour I didn’t mind taking. Because most of what I did as a licensed private investigator for Nardello was often similar to what I did as an investigations attorney (e.g., interviewing witnesses), it was not that much of a change. Ultimately, though, Nardello is not a law firm, and I realized that I wanted to represent clients as a lawyer once more, so I set out to do so.
LD: Since the Atchley case you mentioned, you’ve filed lawsuits against many global corporations involving the funneling of money to terrorist groups that led to deaths and injuries of American military members. Can you break down how this works, in general?
RS: In addition to Atchley v. AstraZeneca (against five medical supply companies for allegedly paying Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps proxies in Iraq), our clients’ terrorism matters include King v. Habib Bank Limited (Pakistani bank that allegedly deliberately serviced terrorist customers, in which U.S. District Judge Lorna Schofield recently denied defendants’ motion to dismiss plaintiffs’ Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act claims), Cabrera v. Black & Veatch (10 companies that allegedly made protection payments to the Taliban, including its Haqqani Network), Schmitz v. Ericsson (concerning the February 2022 Ericsson Iraq Leaks), Wildman v. Deutsche Bank et al. (banks accused of laundering money for terrorists), Zobay v. MTN Group, et al and Lau v. ZTE Corp. et al (related cases concerning alleged Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps corporate partners MTN Group, ZTE Corp., and Huawei Co.), Brown v. National Bank of Pakistan (Pakistani bank that allegedly aided, among others, the internationally notorious terrorist known as the “Tartan Taliban”), Davis v. MTN Irancell (case against MTN Group and two former members of its C-Suite) and other Anti-Terrorism Act cases. In the grand scheme of things, however, I do not believe our clients have filed very many terrorism cases considering the unprecedented decades-long epidemic of terrorist finance that was largely uncontrolled in a manner that evokes striking parallels to various aspects of the opioids epidemic.
Our clients primarily have filed suit under the Anti-Terrorism Act, as amended by Congress in 2016 through the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which created a new cause of action for secondary liability under which JASTA prohibits defendants from, directly or indirectly, providing substantial assistance to persons who commit acts of international terrorism that harm Americans.
We also help thousands of Americans sue Iran under the terrorism exception of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA). Any discussion must start with Iran, because nearly all roads terrorism-related ultimately lead back to Tehran. So we help thousands of Americans sue Iran, and are doing so in Cabrera v. Islamic Republic of Iran (concerning the IRGC’s aid to the Taliban, for which our clients recently won a major liability ruling finding, among other things, that the IRGC aided al-Qaeda and the Taliban, including its Haqqani Network), Neiberger v. Islamic Republic of Iran (concerning the IRGC’s aid to Shiite terrorists in Iraq, for which our clients recently won $455M in damages) and Martino v. Islamic Republic of Iran (concerning the IRGC’s aid to Sunni terrorists in Iraq).
At Sparacino, and the partner firms with whom we are honored to work, we focus on only the “worst offenders” in our JASTA litigation and, of course, we sue Iran. So, as a practical matter, we are typically talking about behavior that we believe is plainly criminal and usually pretty over-the-top anti-American, and we are suing defendants that are more often than not notorious in their industries for being amongst the dirtiest players.
We do not represent clients who assert ATA claims alleging, for example, that defendants had a system in place but it was not good enough. We don’t do “one got past the goalie” cases.
We always partner with elite law firms or subject matter experts to pursue our clients’ ATA cases: firms like Kellogg Hansen, Willkie Farr & Gallager, Susman Godfrey, Lehotsky Keller, and Osen, to name five examples.
Lastly, nearly every ATA case is ultimately, directly or indirectly, about the world’s worst terrorist group: the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), including its Hezbollah Division. So when the defendants in these cases whine about the Anti-Terrorism Act, it’s worth remembering that we’re typically talking about companies that were in bed with an IRGC proxy that actively targeted Americans for murder for an extended period even while the IRGC, through such proxies, was notoriously sponsoring terrorist attacks against the U.S. worldwide.
LD: Why is this not a daily outrage and what publicity issues do you need to overcome to bring these corporations to account for their alleged behavior?
RS: It is an outrage of the highest order. What happened to my clients is an outrage. The flaccid government response – other than Congress’s and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York – is an outrage. The willingness of some ATA defense attorneys to advance talking points that would make the Ayatollah blush is an outrage, e.g., the suggestion that Hezbollah kidnapping attacks targeting American civilians are acts of war, not an act of terrorism, which is something Ayatollah Ali Khamenei [Iran's supreme leader] could not have said better himself. So lots to be angry about here. Fortunately, that fuels me like few other things.
Large pockets of the media are just embarrassing on these issues. I have nothing but contempt for any outlet, like some news networks, that spent years hyping up the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan but won’t even devote a story to the defendants (and key advertisers) who stand accused of paying off the bad guys. If you pay attention to the companies running ads on cable news, especially outside of the United States, it’s like a who’s who of anti-American corporate terrorist sponsors, so I do not think the deafening silence from some media outlets is a coincidence.
Straightforward Legal Landscape
I think most Americans never paid meaningful attention to Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria in the first instance and want to put it all behind them today. The 3,500-plus Americans whom my firm, and our co-counsel, are honored to represent do not have that luxury. They continue to carry the terrible burden that the terrorists inflicted upon them, which were aided by companies like the defendants my clients have named (and will continue to name in the months ahead).
Thankfully, some developments are so gargantuan even the media takes notice. For example, the Statement of Facts published by the U.S. Department of Justice, to which multinational corporate giant Lafarge admitted in its recent guilty plea for material support for terrorists, is just an astonishing document. (Side note: I encourage everyone to read the Lafarge Statement of Facts, and defy anyone to say it’s not the most insane thing you’ve read in your career. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn really did an amazing job here.)
LD: What is the legal landscape you have to navigate to successfully bring these claims and collect on them? What are the principal challenges, whether establishing jurisdiction, pinpointing specific acts furthering terrorism in what can seem a completely obscuring matrix of acts, or enforcing judgments?
RS: The legal landscape is straightforward, notwithstanding what desperate corporate wrongdoers-turned-ATA defendants might claim. Congress passed a broad statute, JASTA, which creates a broad remedy, designed for the obvious reason that Congress determined that civil liability was a key part of U.S. counter-terrorism strategy to protect American lives, and was vital to countering terrorist finance and logistics.
We are suing defendants that are more often than not notorious in their industries for being amongst the dirtiest players.
The ATA cases filed by Sparacino PLLC’s clients validate Congress’s judgment. For example, short of launching airstrikes against the IRGC fronts themselves, e.g., MTN Irancell, I challenge anyone to name a more meaningful threat to the IRGC’s ability to access the vital U.S. communications technology it desperately needs than our clients’ ongoing ATA lawsuits against the IRGC’s three favorite corporate partners: MTN Group (of South Africa) and ZTE Corp. and Huawei Co. (both from the People’s Republic of China). Through these lawsuits, American Gold Star families and injured servicemembers send a potent message – aid the IRGC, suffer the consequences.
I believe these cases will remain quite strong as long as plaintiffs continue to focus, like our clients always do, on what we believe are the worst of the worst offenders.
LD: You have a profound motivation in the form of a son, and your own experience with cancer. Tell me more about how they inspired you to take on this challenge?
RS: I was diagnosed with late-stage rectal cancer when my son was 2 years old. It was, roughly speaking, about the same diagnosis that claimed the life of actor Chadwick Boseman, from what I have read. Me being me, I scanned every colorectal cancer-related abstract I could find on the National Institutes of Health’s website (5,000-plus, I believe), which took me about a week. In so doing, I tried to conduct my own internal investigation and document review of my cancer diagnosis and due diligence of what my doctors were telling me, if you will, minus the hassles of vendors and overseas witness interviews in some cramped Middle Eastern conference room but with uncomfortably higher stakes.
For the first six months or so after I was diagnosed, I believed I was going to die. One doctor at an elite medical school reviewed my data, looked me in the eyes (his own welling up), and pronounced my five-year survival odds as “30 percent if we’re lucky,” which is a moment and phrase that I will never forget for as long as I live. Literally, even today, I cannot think about that moment without needing a second to compose myself thereafter.
'A Curse and A Blessing'
During this six-month stretch, I blamed myself for my anticipated death, and I obsessed over three thoughts above all else: one, that my son would never have the chance to get to know his dad in a way he would remember; two, that I would leave my wife a widow; and three, that my parents would bury me. Number one was especially brutal. I also had to deal with more mundane things that were still plenty unpleasant, most of all, the necessary task of planning my own funeral. That was because I was afraid that I could die before I even had a chance to see many of my friends one final time in person, and I wanted to make sure my funeral functioned as the goodbye I was afraid I would never have if I waited until it was too late and didn’t start planning until the very end.
In the months that followed month six, I went from cancer underdog to cancer favorite to where I am now: no evidence of disease, the best possible posture. But I have never for one day forgotten how I felt during those six months. It was a living nightmare every day. Even today, it still impacts me.
My cancer journey made me think about my legacy. Personally, it made me want to be a better father and husband. Professionally, it made me much stronger.
With respect to the latter point, I view my cancer as a curse and blessing. A curse because of what I went through and the disabilities I now endure (e.g., my hands don’t work very well anymore, and my surgically re-built areas present unique challenges to me in a courtroom). But a blessing because it has made me utterly, completely, without fear. I don’t mean to sound reckless or cocksure – we are still careful, small c-conservative, and the like. But the normal bullshit tactics that a certain class of Big Law lawyers often use to try to intimidate other lawyers operating in smaller firms mean absolutely nothing to me. Which gives me a decided advantage, because a lot of the tools in the Big Law defense playbook rely upon intimidation.
'James Bond Villain Wannabe'
I am pleased to report, however, that I have also been the beneficiary of tremendous grace by many opposing counsel, even in hotly contested matters. (Shameless plug here for civility, and a public thank you that I posted on LinkedIn to two examples of civility for everyone else to applaud, Tim Harkness of Freshfields and Frank Dante of Blank Rome.)
LD: Any other topics you’d like to cover, or a case you’d like to discuss in detail?
RS: First, Sparacino PLLC’s Anti-Terrorism Act practice is busier than ever. This mostly reflects the almost limitless depravity of a certain class of multinational-corporation that is willing to pay terrorists to make money. Lafarge recently announced themselves to the world as the latest Corporate James Bond Villain Wannabe, and it goes without saying, we’re monitoring developments there. Again, if you haven’t read it, read the Statement of Facts; Lafarge just really broke bad in a way that is still hard for me to comprehend and I’m a professional.
The Lafarge case, however, is not just about Lafarge. It’s but a sneak preview of coming attractions for a substantial number of the other corporate criminals who chose to lubricate their profits in the Middle East with the blood of American servicemembers. For example, considering the fact that MTN Irancell is a notorious front for the IRGC, and the IRGC is a Foreign Terrorist Organization and the world’s worst terrorist group, any company, law firm or any other party that gets within a country mile of aiding MTN Irancell needs to have their head examined. I suspect the siren call of IRGC profits will remain too strong for some, and we’ll continue being in the IRGC-busting business for a long time.