The Report of a Consummate Washington Lawyer: Insights from Robert Bennett's "In The Ring"

By JOHN W. DEAN
Friday, Jul. 11, 2008

Bob Bennett is one of the best-known attorneys in Washington, DC, a city with more lawyers per capita than any place in the United States, if not the world. Although I’ve never met Bennett, I suspect we must have passed one another in the halls at Georgetown University Law Center, where he graduated the year before I did.

Bennett has had – and continues to have – a fascinating legal career in which he has represented the “who’s who” of Washington (and elsewhere) in a steady stream of high-profile media-saturated cases. Recently, he has shared highlights from his career in his new book In The Ring: The Trials of a Washington Lawyer. For me, his memoir is more than a trip down memory lane, for he places a number of highly-political criminal prosecutions in which he lead the defense in appropriate historical perspective.

“Washington,” Bennett says, is not only a “tough” town, but also a “mean” one. He certainly makes the case for this contention with his reminiscences of his representation of two Washington attorneys and icons: Clark Clifford, a Democrat, and Caspar Weinberger, a Republican. His stories are chilling.

Defending Against the Attack on Clark Clifford: The Fall of a Democratic Icon

Clark Clifford was a Washington legend. Tall and always elegantly dressed, he was a distinguished-looking man with his premature gray hair and movie-star features. He had long been one of Washington’s most eminent attorneys, as a former White House counsel to President Truman, a personal attorney to President Kennedy, a former Secretary of Defense for President Johnson, and as a private adviser and international emissary for President Carter. Late in his career, and for the mere challenge of it, Clifford had agreed to server as chairman of the board of First American Bank, in Washington, with his law partner Robert Altman serving as president. They had made a failing bank into a great success.

After serving some nine years in this role, Clifford was eighty-five and in failing health when first New York City District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, and then Assistant U.S. Attorney General Robert Mueller (today Director of the FBI), targeted Clifford, along with Altman, as being complicit in the scandal involving the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), which was in trouble all over the world. BCCI began to implode, following charges of its having laundered drug money and engaged in other nefarious activities, and investigators soon learned that contrary to New York and federal banking laws, BCCI owned First American Bank.

Both Clifford and Altman denied being aware of this ownership relationship, but prosecutors did not believe them. Soon, the prosecutors began leaking their case to the news media and it quickly became a major scandal. How could the savvy Clark Clifford have been deceived and misled by the Arab money men behind BCCI? It did not seem possible.

When Bob Bennett was retained, he and his associates prepared a lengthy submission to show prosecutors that they were wrong – that they had no case – for neither Clifford nor Altman had in fact been aware of the BCCI ownership, nor had they violated any law. Nonetheless, a race was on between the New York District Attorney and the Department of Justice in Washington to prosecute these men. On July 30, 1992, Morgenthau and Mueller both announced their separate (but coordinated) indictments of the two men for allegedly lying to banking officials, accepting bribes, and falsifying records.

Bennett, who always reaches to be fair to his opponents, reports how these prosecutors literally did their best to kill Clifford. Because of Clifford’s failing health, he sought an early trial date, seeking to exonerate himself before he died. When, at Bennett’s request, a federal judge in Washington set the trial for October 26, 1992, the New York prosecutors set their own trial date on October 22, 1992 in New York City. As Bennett explains, normally the state defers to the federal case, and the Department of Justice insists on proceeding. But Mueller’s office “shamelessly capitulated and agreed that the New York trial could go first.” Bennett believes that the reason for the decision was that the feds knew they had no case, so they were happy to let Morgenthau proceed.

Bennett explained to the New York prosecutors that Clifford was not physically capable of traveling to and enduring a trial in New York, but the prosecutors fought him, until a New York judge sent a team of doctors and then found that, indeed, Clifford was too ill. Nonetheless, prosecutors still insisted on proceeding against Altman, whom they tried to force into pleading guilty so they could nail Clifford, but Altman refused, and went to trial. Meanwhile, Clifford went through open heart surgery, and while he survived it, Bennett says he never truly recovered.

After five months of the prosecution’s presenting evidence at trial, the case was so weak that the judge dismissed the bribery charges (the heart of their case), but the prosecutors plowed on, forcing the jury to decide. The jury’s verdict regarding Altman: Not guilty. Bennett reports that, after their verdict, “The jurors eagerly met with the press to criticize the prosecution and proclaimed that Altman was unquestionably innocent.”

Bennett does not report whether Morgenthau or Mueller ever dismissed the case they had constructed against Clifford, whose only vindication was Altman’s acquittal. He remained too ill to stand trial. Bennett says he was later asked by news people how they got it so wrong. “I told them that the story line – an icon’s fall from grace – was too good and caused them to get carried away and accept at face value all that was told to them by out-of-control prosecutors.” He adds, that while the press ultimately knew they had been misled, “this was of little consolation to Clifford,” who died on October 10, 1998, under the shadow of his fabricated disgrace.

Defending Against the Attack on Caspar Weinberger: The Fall of a Republican Icon

Caspar Weinberger was selected by President Nixon to serve as Chair of the Federal Trade Commission. Nixon later moved Weinberger to the White House, first as Deputy Director and then as Director of the Office of Management and Budget. In 1973, Weinberger became the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, a position in which he remained during the Ford Administration.

President Ronald Reagan selected Weinberger to be his Secretary of Defense, a post he held for over six years. As one of Reagan’s key national security advisers, however, Weinberger objected to the sale of arms to Iran. When the Iran-Contra scandal erupted, and former federal judge Lawrence Walsh was appointed Independent Counsel to investigate the sale of arms to Iran, Weinberger fully cooperated with the inquiry for some five years. Late in the investigation, however, Walsh advised a shocked Weinberger that he was now among its targets.

Weinberger hired Bob Bennett. In all the accounts that Bennett shares in his book, he goes out of his way not to personally criticize those who were his prior opponents, but there is one exception: Lawrence Walsh. For example, at one point in his account, Bennett states, “The best reason why the independent counsel law should never be brought back to life is Lawrence Walsh. Walsh’s prosecution of Weinberger was one of the greatest abuses of prosecutorial power I have ever encountered.”

Bennett backs this up with page after page describing Walsh’s unprofessional conduct. When, for example, Bennett provided Walsh with evidence of Weinberger’s innocence – such as the fact that though Walsh was claiming Weinberger had made material false statements to the Senate, the Senate committee that had heard Weinberger’s testimony disagreed – Walsh became outraged. He did not want the fact he had ignored getting in the way of his prosecution. When Bennett convinced the court to dismiss charges in the indictment, Walsh issued a new indictment – just before the election in which President George H. W. Bush would lose to Bill Clinton – suggesting that Bush was involved in the Iran-Contra matters through Weinberger. (This new charge of another purported false statement to Congress was quickly dismissed too, for it did not fall within the statute of limitations, a fact that suggested that Walsh had added it simply for political purposes, as the election approached.)

Those who have followed the Iran-Contra investigation always had good reason to suspect that the trophy Walsh truly wanted was President Reagan. Bennett confirms this suspicion, based on his direct dealing with Walsh. Walsh told Bennett that if Weinberger “would cooperate by providing evidence against President Reagan and other high-level officials of his administration, they would accept a misdemeanor plea and would support a recommendation of no jail.” Weinberger refused, because he was not guilty of anything and had no incriminating evidence against others – and because he had no interest in lying for Walsh.

As Bennett prepared for trial, after the election of Bill Clinton, he also began suggesting to friends on Capitol Hill, and to White House counsel Borden Gray, that a pardon from Bush would end it all. Over the Christmas holiday, Bush pardoned not only Weinberger, but others who had been involved in the Iran-Contra matter as well. Needless to say, Walsh was outraged, and ranted and raved about corruption at the highest levels. Bennett disagrees. Based on his knowledge, he says, Weinberger was “innocent of all the charges made against him, and I believe he would have been fully vindicated at trial.” Again, uncharacteristically mincing no words, Bennett adds, “His indictment was a gross miscarriage of justice perpetuated by an irresponsible prosecutor.” Indeed, he compares Walsh to the crazed Ahab of Moby-Dick.

While this is not a book review, I can only close by saying this book is a great read for anyone interested in the way Washington works. In addition to the matters I have discussed above, it also includes accounts of Bennett’s service as Special Counsel to the Senate Ethics Committee when investigating the Keating Five (he feels Senators Glenn and McCain did not engage in inappropriate behavior, while Senators Cranston, DeConcini and Riegle were up to their necks in improperly assisting the S & L mogul); his representation of the politically-incorrect owner of the Cincinnati Reds, Marge Schott (he even protected Marge’s dog and the team’s mascot, Schottzie 02, from the numbskulls of Major League Baseball); his handling of New York Times reporter Judith Miller’s contempt of court (Tom Brokaw visited her in jail); and, of course, his representation of President Bill Clinton during the Paula Jones litigation and Ken Starr investigations (he thinks Starr, his friend, was out of his league) – to mention only a few more of his tales well told.


John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.

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