Lawyer With a Cause Is a Study in Contrasts

Times Staff Writer

He’s for gun control.

He’s an ardent environmentalist who makes pilgrimages to the Himalayas.

He’s a backer of political candidates who often are too liberal to stand a chance.

He’s got a nose for tyranny in the wind, especially any odorous breeze out of Washington. . . .


OK, this is a sketch of a radical-fringe Californian, a macrobiotic, mystical type dressed in robes and righteousness, right?


Partner in Big Firm

It’s a partial portrait of Francis M. Wheat, a 66-year-old, conservatively suited securities attorney and partner in Los Angeles’ biggest law firm, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher. (Among other things, Gibson, Dunn handles President Reagan’s private legal matters and lists Reagan’s former attorney general, William French Smith, among its partners.)

So Wheat, who once served on the Securities and Exchange Commission, is a member of the Establishment, the Wall Street/Washington Establishment, no less.

But Wheat is a bundle of contradictions. While his clients have included such heavyweights as defense contractor Textron, he is no stranger to lost causes and underdog issues. For example, he says he “worked like a dog” for the California handgun control initiative that was crushed by voters in 1982, and he is on the board of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, which has often challenged powerful economic interests.

And those are some indications why Wheat, who has kept to the background throughout much of his career, is getting a first-ever, high-profile tribute Wednesday from the Center for Law in the Public Interest, a 16-year-old enterprise whose causes have ranged from defense of homeless alcoholics to a lengthy anti-freeway battle. Wheat has been on the center’s board for 12 years and, by all accounts, has been one of its most active trustees.

The center will use the money raised from its dinner at the Music Center to establish a fellowship in Wheat’s name to train young lawyers in public interest litigation. New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, a possible Democratic presidential candidate, will be the chief speaker, making the evening potentially a national political event.

Wheat’s name has proved a powerful draw. Even before Cuomo was added to the schedule, dinner organizers say they sold more than half the tickets through a mailing of 900 invitations. The dinner is now almost sold out, with firms and individuals shelling out about $140,000 for 700 tickets at $200 apiece to an event honoring one lawyer among 20,000 in Los Angeles County.

What sets Wheat apart, friends and colleagues say, is what he does after a long day spent working for a client such as Playboy magazine magnate Hugh Hefner or a bankrupt brokerage firm.

“He has a unique dedication to public affairs,” said longtime colleague Warren Christopher, who heads Los Angeles’ second biggest law firm, O’Melveny & Myers, and who was deputy secretary of state in the Carter Administration. “He does not just lend his name to causes; he puts his shoulder to the wheel and pushes, pushes, pushes. . . .”

Marsha Kwalwasser, the center’s vice president, said: “Once he believes he’s right, he hangs on and uses his enormous powers of persuasion to win people over. Frank does not back down.”

Steven Meiers of Gibson Dunn put it this way: “He will run into a brick wall until it falls over.”

Wheat--whose one blatant eccentricity is a penchant for dinosaur-emblazoned ties--seems nonplussed by the attention.

But then Wheat, appointed to the SEC in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, is still chaffing over a 1985 Los Angeles Magazine article that ranked him 43rd among the 50 most powerful people in town.

‘Certainly Very Silly’

“That was a fluke,” he said the other day. “I’ll be damned if I know why I made that list. It’s crazy. It certainly was very silly.”

For those who know him, such a reaction was predictable. “Frank is self-effacing in an extreme way,” Kwalwasser said.

But those who know him seem to have bushels of Wheat stories.

Nancy Mintie of the Inner City Law Center, an advocacy firm for homeless people, remembers that when she was operating out of a trailer on Skid Row three years ago, Wheat stopped by for an afternoon.

Despite the trailer’s seedy air and the scorching heat, Mintie recalled that Wheat was not put off.

“Frank saw through all of the appearances,” she said. “He figured out that we were legitimate.” She said Wheat has since given money and helped put together a fund-raising campaign for Inner City.

Supported Evers’ Bid

Myrlie Evers, widow of assassinated civil rights leader Medgar Evers, said Wheat was an early supporter in her unsuccessful 1970 bid for the 24th Congressional District seat in California. She was one of two women running for federal office in this state then.

“He put himself on the line to support me,” said Evers, now a candidate for Los Angeles’ 10th District city council seat.

Mintie, Meiers and others said Wheat seems to have no enemies, even among those who disagree with him.

Meiers, who said he supports the right to own a handgun, described Wheat as “not just a spectacular lawyer but as fine a human being as walks the planet.”

John F. Olson, a partner in the Gibson Dunn office in Washington who has known Wheat since 1963, said Wheat’s faults--if he has any--are side effects of his passion for work.

Frenetic Pace

Wheat is “extremely demanding” of colleagues, Olson said, and believes that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”

Because he works “crazy hours” and maintains a frenetic schedule, Wheat has gone through a number of secretaries “not because they didn’t love him but because they couldn’t keep up the pace anymore,” Olson said.

In meetings, Wheat “will take the floor and make his point and nobody is going to stop that natural force until he’s through,” Olson said, noting that “sometimes he’s referred to in the firm as an unguided missile because he may go off in any direction.”

But Olson said he could not think of anyone “more committed to excellence, more ethical or more alive.” His admiration stems partly from the fact that “if he thinks that someone has been wronged, in the firm or outside, he will be willing to do something and do it right now.”

And Olson said he has never heard Wheat “say anything that was attacking the character and self-worth of anyone. His passion is for the position, never against the individual.”

Wheat apparently is a charmer no matter where he is. Some years ago on a trek in the Himalayas, Wheat used a Polaroid camera to win over a mountain village where Westerners had seldom been seen, said Seth Hufstedler, a friend and partner in the firm of Hufstedler Miller Carlson & Beardsley.

In person, Wheat was outspoken on public issues and apparently not much interested in himself.

Wheat said he sees no contradiction between who he may represent as a corporate lawyer and who or what he may support on his own time.

(Wheat’s colleague Olson offered this insight: Wheat, he said, “believes in the free enterprise system but he also believes there are social responsibilities.”)

A vocal defender of the legal profession, Wheat said: “I think in a general sense, lawyers should move into any vacuum that seems to be developing. I think that one of the things that sets this country apart is the fact that there is a wonderful legal tradition going all the way back to (early observer of American society Alexis) de Tocqueville, who said that lawyers in the country would sniff out tyranny on every breeze.

“I think that’s true. I think lawyers are a bulwark against the imperial presidency and if things get bad in any particular direction, then you’ll probably find one or more groups of public interest lawyers working on the subject.”

While he doesn’t believe the legal profession is perfect, Wheat said the generally unfavorable reputation lawyers have with the public is a bad rap due partly to the fact that “the public finds trials to be distasteful; they find the bureaucracy which manages the courts insensitive and discourteous.”

He added: “I don’t know how many times people who have undertaken jury duty have told me it was a miserable experience. They were shunted from place to place. None of the clerks and functionaries ever said thank you or even did them any courtesy at all.”

Criticizes SEC Laxity

Wheat, a 1948 graduate of Harvard Law School who is married and has three grown sons, also said he is disturbed that the SEC is not doing enough to regulate the current wave of corporate takeovers and insider trading incidents.

“I think the SEC has been, if anything, a little too anxious to prove itself a staunch soldier in the deregulation army,” he said. “That has led to unwillingness on the part of the SEC to press for the budgetary support it needs to do the job that ought to be done if our securities markets are going to be kept fundamentally honest and deserving of public support.”

An enthusiastic mountain climber, Wheat attributes his enjoyment of high places to his own shortcomings.

“I suppose that if you are not extraordinarily athletic and not very well coordinated and you can’t shoot under 100 on the golf course and you’re not very good on the tennis court, you wind up finding that the one thing you can do is put one foot in front of the other,” he said.

Liberal in San Marino

San Marino resident Wheat, a political liberal all his life, lives in the heavily Republican 22nd Congressional District represented by Carlos Moorhead.

“I guess I have supported everybody who has ever run against him (Moorhead), partly on the theory that even though it’s a lost cause, you’ve got to have somebody who’s willing to run against him. It may influence him somewhere, if they get enough votes.”

But Wheat said he does not unswervingly support Democrats. He recalled that when he was serving on the SEC and living in Washington’s Maryland suburbs, he backed the Republican gubernatorial candidate because he could not stomach the Democratic alternative.

“We had a big party when Spiro Agnew won,” Wheat said, chuckling over Agnew’s having later been forced to resign as Richard Nixon’s vice president because of a bribery scandal.

Asked if he now had second thoughts about this lapse, Wheat replied, “Oh, hell no, I don’t regret it.”