A husky former boxer described as "extremely bright, thorough and fair," special counsel Robert S. Bennett looms as a formidable friend or foe to the "Keating Five" senators whose Senate ethics hearings began Thursday.
"Anybody who did nothing wrong should feel comforted by Bob Bennett," said Plato Cacheris, a former law partner. "But anybody who transgressed will have problems."
Cacheris' Exhibit A: Sen. Dave Durenberger (R-Minn.), denounced by the Senate for financial misconduct earlier this year after Bennett presented overwhelming evidence against him.
"It was like a Mack truck running over an ant," Cacheris said.
A former prosecutor, the 51-year-old Bennett is regarded as one of Washington's top defense lawyers in white-collar crime cases. He has represented several major defense contractors, including Northrop and Boeing, and other clients ranging from an Army retiree accused of conflict of interest to a prospective postal contractor charged with fraud.
Although he normally commands $400 an hour for his services, Bennett is billing the Senate Ethics Committee $150 an hour to gather and present evidence on the relationship between savings and loan magnate Charles H. Keating Jr. and Sens. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D-Mich.) and John Glenn (D-Ohio).
Bennett is the younger brother of William J. Bennett, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, and by his own account and others' is considerably less political.
"I call it the way I see it," he said in an interview this week with the New York Times. "The facts are the facts . . . and facts are nonpolitical."
Bennett has become an old hand at serving as a special counsel to the Senate Ethics Committee. Long before he took over the Durenberger and Keating Five investigations, he oversaw the 1981 investigation of former Sen. Harrison Williams, a New Jersey Democrat who had been convicted of bribery and conspiracy in the Abscam scandal.
Williams resigned just before the Senate voted on Bennett's recommendation that he be expelled.
Kenneth R. Feinberg, who represented Williams before the Ethics Committee, recalled that Bennett was "very combative" but "eminently fair," letting Feinberg summon any witnesses he wanted.
Born in Brooklyn in 1939, Bennett is a graduate of Georgetown University Law School and a former assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.
He once was the boxing champion of the Brooklyn Boys Club.
"He must have been a heavyweight," Cacheris said with a laugh. "He's always fighting the weight problem."
Cacheris described Bennett as "coming off a little like Colombo--a bit disheveled, but his appearance is belied by his sharp mind. He's very witty and gregarious and a very talented lawyer."
In painstakingly investigating the influence of Keating's financial contributions on the five senators, Bennett may find it awkward if questions are raised about the increasingly large sums of money given by the political action committee of the high-powered law firm that he joined last April.
The PAC run by Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom contributed more than $79,000 to 84 Senate and House candidates in the 1990 elections. None of the Keating Five received donations, but Durenberger ironically got $1,000, according to a Times review of Federal Election Commission records.
Other prominent recipients included Sens. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), $3,500; Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.), $3,000; J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), $2,500; Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), $2,000, and Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), $1,000.
Times staff writer Dwight Morris contributed to this story.