ORANGE COUNTY IN BANKRUPTCY : Citron Lawyer Seen as Gutsy Fighter : Crisis: Ex-prosecutor David Wiechert plans to accompany the former treasurer-tax collector to two inquiries this week.
Tenacious and aggressive are inevitable words in conversations about David William Wiechert, the attorney representing former Orange County Treasurer-Tax Collector Robert L. Citron.
Maybe it’s because of Wiechert’s record: More than 20 trials as a federal prosecutor with only one minor player acquitted, plus three-for-three since then as a defense lawyer in federal criminal trials.
Maybe it’s because of Wiechert’s black belt in karate--he used to work out with federal drug enforcement agents.
Or maybe it’s because of Wiechert’s relentless, in-your-face, no-holds-barred style.
“When Dave Wiechert bites into something, he doesn’t let go,” said Robert Bonner, a former U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, federal district judge, and chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
“He is a tiger. He’s not the kind of guy you want to go up against at trial. He can tear into you pretty good,” added attorney Steve Krongold, who is helping Wiechert with the Citron case. “He’s a warrior. He loves trials. That’s where the man shines.”
It is unclear, though, whether Wiechert’s most recent--and most famous--case will make it to a courtroom.
Though half a dozen agencies are probing Citron’s role in the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, no charges have been filed.
But Wiechert steps into the spotlight Tuesday, as Citron speaks publicly for the first time since the bankruptcy filing and his resignation last month, testifying before a special state Senate committee in Sacramento. Three days later, Wiechert and Citron will face a more detailed inquiry from the Securities and Exchange Commission.
“There’s always that question whenever a big case ends: Will I ever get another big case? Everybody asks that,” Wiechert, 39, said. “Fortunately, in my case, I keep getting them.”
As a prosecutor, he sent to prison for 12 years a man who ran a training camp for mercenaries in Alabama and was convicted of firebombing in a case related to two Dana Point preschool operators.
Since he switched sides, Wiechert has successfully defended the president of the failed Lincoln Savings & Loan; an accountant for Karcher Enterprises accused of insider trading; and a former Los Angeles Police detective charged with civil rights violations and money-skimming in a massive law enforcement sting.
The police case stretched over more than four years and involved two trials. His client, Stephen W. Polak of Huntington Beach, was charged with 13 felonies and faced 36 years in prison; he ended up pleading guilty to two misdemeanors and paying a $50 fine.
Those who followed the Polak case remember one crucial moment: When Wiechert rose to cross-examine the government’s star witness, a detective who had cried on the stand about how difficult it was for him to testify against his former partner.
“Your testimony is that at the time that your world was falling in, the one person you thought about protecting was Steve Polak, is that right?” Wiechert asked. “And yet, when your world wasn’t falling in, the one thing you wanted to do was to basically get in the pants of Steve Polak’s wife?”
The line triggered a collective gasp in the courtroom, as Wiechert proceeded to tear apart the officer’s testimony, recalled Roger Cossack, who represented another officer in the case.
“He’s brilliant, he’s courageous, he’s gutsy, he’s entertaining,” Cossack said, echoing others who praised Wiechert’s willingness to say anything, to anyone, to get what he wants for his client.
The commitment goes beyond the courtroom: During the Polak trials, he drove to court every day with his client and even spent many nights sleeping at Polak’s home. Citron and his wife were invited to the Wiechert’s house in Capistrano Beach for Christmas dinner.
“He personalized the relationship,” said Polak, who still chats with Wiechert about once a week, though the case has been closed for months. “He gave me his home phone number and he said call him any time--and I did.”
Wiechert first learned to argue on the debate circuit while a student at New Trier High in the Chicago suburbs. It was good training for his later career change from prosecution to defense, because debaters must argue both sides of the same point, often on the same day.
He honed the killer instinct playing volleyball while a political science major at the University of Michigan--"the highlight of my life was hitting through an Ohio State double-clock,” he remembered.
Wiechert also thrived in the classical Socratic questioning during classes at Michigan Law, where he was note editor of the Law Review.
“He is quite silver-tongued,” said his law school roommate, Robert Spatt. “He has an incredibly quick, facile mind, which is what serves you well. . . . The nature of the process is one that rewards people who can act quickly on their feet.”
Wiechert still plays volleyball, Boogie boards and practices martial arts. But his favorite place to compete is in court.
“Dave is not Mr. Schmooze. When Dave has a case against you, Dave wants to take your heart out,” said Sacramento U.S. Atty. Chuck Stevens, who worked with Wiechert at a private firm and as a prosecutor.
Wiechert admits it. “There’s a competitive side of me and there’s nothing more competitive than a trial. You would have to try cases for a long time for that adrenaline not to come at the start of every trial.”
That rush brought Wiechert to the U.S. attorney’s office in 1983, where he had “the greatest law job in the world.”
But four years and three children later--he and his wife, Karen, now have four blond-haired, blue-eyed sons--Wiechert felt he could not afford to stay. His first year in private practice he made double his government salary; by the time he left the Irvine firm of Layman, Jones and Dye to start an independent practice last year, it was five times as much.
Now he charges $240 an hour--a bill Orange County officials agreed this week to pick up on Citron’s behalf.
“I loved being a prosecutor, wearing the white hat,” Wiechert said. “But I think you can wear the white hat as a defense lawyer too. There are some people who don’t deserve the punishments they get--and some who are innocent.
“If you can’t afford to work for the government and you want to try cases, you have to be a defense attorney.”
But in the defense attorney’s world of high-priced suits and legal jargon, Wiechert stands out for his simplicity and his sarcasm.
He wears a $45 waterproof watch from Price Club and dresses in faded slacks and oxfords with open cuffs, unless he’s headed for court (one former colleague recalled him fishing neckties out from among the remnants of fast-food meals in the back seat of his car just before entering the office).
Conversations with Wiechert are punctuated by cackling laughter and peppered with off-color language. He recently met with a co-worker on the Citron case on the sidelines of his son’s soccer game.
Now renting office space from a Costa Mesa law firm, Wiechert doesn’t even have a file cabinet. One wall has his diploma and a couple of plaques--his favorite is the newest, which Polak made for him with his LAPD shield--and the rest are empty except for a portrait of his wife in a black evening dress and two pictures of the children. He keeps his phone on the floor, and works with compact discs playing pop music.
“I’m not fond of all the accouterments of the profession,” Wiechert said.
Stevens recalled a time Wiechert left a box of Pampers on a chair in his office--for eight months.
“He had all of the legal skills one would expect, but he was so unconcerned about appearances and looking serious that one was just comfortable associating with him. He was the opposite of pretentious,” Stevens said. “He was deadly serious about his work, but as serious about having fun and not taking himself too seriously.”