Los Angeles Times Interview : Robert Bennett : A Non-Partisan Lawyer in Demand Amid a Political World

Ronald J. Ostrow covers the Justice Department and Robert L. Jackson covers federal courts for The Times. They have written about defense lawyers, prosecutors, trials and investigations in Washington for more than 28 years each. They interviewed Robert S. Bennett in his office

Prominent defense attorneys are not a rare commodity in Washington, where political-corruption cases and allegations of ethical or financial wrongdoing keep the defense bar in business. But few lawyers have represented leading American political figures with such diverse viewpoints as Robert S. Bennett, whose celebrated clients have included Democratic power broker Clark M. Clifford, in a bank-fraud case, and former Republican Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, in Iran-Contra. In addition, Bennett earlier served as special Senate counsel to press ethics charges against five senators--a Republican and four Democrats--in the so-called Keating Five investigation of their links to a now-convicted savings-and-loan executive.

More recently, Bennett has represented the ultimate high-profile client--President Bill Clinton--in his defense of a civil sexual-harassment suit brought by a former Arkansas state employee. Bennett brushes aside criticism from some friends of former Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, a client with whom he had a falling out, that he should have consulted the powerful House Ways and Means Committee chairman before taking on Clinton as a client, since Bennett was negotiating for him with Clinton's Justice Department. He declined comment on any of his current cases.

As a grade-school pupil in Brooklyn, the combative Bennett once decked a bully who had beaten up his younger brother, Bill--who grew up to be the education secretary and drug czar in the Bush Administration. Using a straightforward tactic, Bennett knocked on the bully's front door and politely asked his mother to see the boy. "When he showed up, I gave it to him in the chops," the super-lawyer recalls. Later, he took up boxing in high school and developed some shifty moves, becoming a champion pugilist for the Flatbush Boys Club.

The training has served him well in the competitive arena of the courtroom, where he regularly stands toe-to-toe against federal prosecutors on behalf of his celebrated clients. The 55-year-old Bennett commands $415 an hour, ranking among the most sought-after defense attorneys in the capital. To see Bennett in a courtroom is to watch a high-energy practitioner, leaping to his feet with well-timed arguments or even a soothing word to mollify a judge or legal opponent. His friend Plato Cacheris, another prominent defense lawyer, likes Bennett's inner toughness, whether it's in federal court or on Cacheris' tennis court, where Bennett is a frequent guest.

However, the stocky Bennett acknowledges he almost met his match when he surprised a grizzly bear with her three cubs near his ranch in Montana last summer. Waving a can of Mace as the bear lumbered toward him, Bennett says he shouted, "I'm not a lawyer! I'm not a lawyer!" A hiking companion got a full-color photo, now hanging in Bennett's office, before the grizzly turned away. Bennett and his wife of 25 years, Ellen, are the parents of three grown daughters.

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Question: Having represented some of the best-known clients in America, are there special elements that come into play in representing high-profile people?

Answer: I think so. You're dealing with them at a time of their life that is very difficult for them--when they see their reputations being besmirched by allegations. They're out of their environment. Many of them are control-type people who are used to controlling things.

It always compounds the situation when the members of the press and the media are involved. Usually, it's best to handle cases out of the public glare. But when you're representing very high-profile people, the issue is not whether you deal with the media, but how you deal with them. And while "no comment" is perfectly appropriate in 80% or 90% of one's cases, rarely is it appropriate in those cases where you're representing a very high-profile client.

Q: Does the public glare pose a problem in settling a case?

A: As a very general rule, it is a lot easier to resolve a case favorably to your client when there is no public glare, when it's not a high-profile matter. Because the prosecuting authority isn't as worried that they have to justify what they do to the public. They don't feel they'll be second-guessed. Sometimes, the prosecuting authority--when I say prosecuting, I'm not just talking criminal, I'm also talking other civil enforcement, the aggressive side of the civil practice--can work to your advantage, because the authorities want to establish a precedent. They want to show that they're working in an area, that they're aggressive in an area. Sometimes, you can use that to your advantage, and in some unique cases, you're able to get results which may be better than if it received no public attention. Because the driving engine of the government is to get public attention.

Q: One high-profile case getting lots of attention is O.J. Simpson. What does that do for America's evaluation of the legal system?

A: I think the quality of the lawyering is generally very good on both sides. But I think this case is grotesque. It is doing great damage and will do great damage to the legal system. The guilt or innocence of Simpson is at issue. But there's no question that the two victims were innocent, and they're a sideshow.

There's something wrong when a case is being covered by a reporter from Dog World Magazine. There's something wrong with a case in which the jurors are going to spend more time locked up than most people convicted of crimes. There's something wrong with a system in which every witness has one eye on the case and another eye on how they can profit from being a witness. I wonder if jurors are sitting there taking notes not so much to help them reach a fair verdict but because they, too, want to write a book . . .

The only plus out of it--and I know this is something you all will disagree with--is that, hopefully, it will slow down the movement toward television in courtrooms. It's grotesque, because the serious business of deciding whether someone murdered two people or not is now just entertainment. Nobody's suggesting secret trials. But if this were just being handled by the print media, it wouldn't be hyped to the point that it's hyped.

Q: Are all the shortcomings you just described controllable by the judge? Could they all have been avoided?

A: I believe a lot could have been eliminated. If he had authority to allow television in the courtroom or not--which I understand that he did--he should not have let it in the courtroom.

Also, while I think Judge (Lance A.) Ito has many wonderful judicial qualities, I think he just doesn't take sufficient control. Most judges, most of the time, know how they're going to rule on various evidentiary issues and will ask for a hearing or briefs on which they're really unclear about. One gets the impression in this case that every issue, no matter what it is, gets a full-blown hearing on national television. And I wonder if the television cameras were not there, if there would be less of that and the arguments would be shorter and you could get on with the business of resolving the case.

Q: What other factors account for the American people agreeing with that Shakespeare line, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers"?

A: I don't blame the individual lawyers in this. It's the system. When you watch this case, there's a perception that the defense technique or tactic is that, because they realize the strength of the evidence of the government's case, there is an effort to raise every issue and focus on things that were not done rather than things that were, and the public says, "Gee, they're just trying to create ghosts and hope the jury will chase them."

Well, that's what lawyers are paid to do in our society, in our system. I think--I'm going to get kicked out of court here--but I've been thinking about these issues for a long time, and I'm becoming increasingly convinced we have to make some basic, fundamental changes. It's become a game.

I'm saying something I never thought I'd ever say before, but I'm beginning to think now what we should do is have a judge exclude jurors clearly prejudiced or biased one way or another, or for whatever reasons can't sit, and then just sit the first 12 people in the box and go on with it rather than the system we have.

The system we have now is the judge is very careful to exclude in voir dire biased people, and then both sides--with the benefit of their expensive jury consultants--set about the task of putting in the box people who are biased toward their point of view and, somehow, we then say, it will work out, it will all neutralize and a just verdict will come out. And I think that's not the case.

Q: You have served as a special counsel to the Senate Ethics Committee in the Keating Five case, and you have been on the other side of an independent counsel--Lawrence Walsh--in defending Caspar Weinberger in Iran-Contra before he received a presidential pardon. What are your thoughts on the government's growing use of independent counsels?

A: I think it's very dangerous and it's very bad. I'm not an absolutist on this. There may be those cases involving a President or an attorney general in which there may be a need for an independent counsel, but I think that now the Justice Department is beginning to play an almost secondary role.

Justice (Antonin) Scalia has said this is a wolf that comes to us in wolf's clothing, and he's right. There is virtual accountability on paper but no accountability in reality. I think they've created a monster. It's costing the American taxpayers an absolute fortune. Lawrence Walsh served longer than all but three attorneys general--something like seven years. Arlin Adams has been going five years. I read in the paper that Mr. (Kenneth) Starr has 20 attorneys and some 25 (FBI) agents. I don't think the government ever had more than four lawyers assigned to the John Gotti case, and they had only about seven core (FBI) agents.

Q: Dep. Atty. Gen. Jamie Gorelick has said the independent counsels are moving along fast enough, and she says they're worth the price, that there are some cases the Justice Department can't take on because of the appearance problem.

A: Well, that suggests something very critical of the Justice Department. If we've gotten to the point where the American people don't have confidence in decisions at Justice, then I suggest that my friend Ms. Gorelick focus on getting the reputation and integrity of the department up to speed rather than taking the easy way out by having these independent counsels. The real questions are: Has justice been done? Has the American taxpayer been well-served? Do we really want to give that power to somebody? I think the Department of Justice has to reassert its influence.

And I think something else has happened. You want politics out of it. But I think the independent counsel is just becoming another vehicle to beat up on the other side. When I was representing Cap Weinberger, I can't tell you the number of Republicans who were telling me how outrageous the statute was, how things shouldn't be handled this way. But now that they have a Democratic President in a case, Republicans think the idea is not so bad after all. So I think politics is getting into the prosecution business much more now than before.

Q: Should defense lawyers avoid partisan politics?

A: In my kind of practice, I should not be involved in partisan politics. How could I be? And I don't want to be. That's why I have clients on both sides. The truth is, I'm an issue-oriented person, and there are lots of issues on each side that I agree with.

Q: On a more personal note, does being the brother of a well-known political figure do anything for your practice, or do anything against it?

A: No, I don't think it has any impact. Part of that is I was here first. Seriously, one of the highest compliments anyone has ever paid me was the President's hiring me on the Paula Jones case, notwithstanding that my brother, at the time, was considered a potential opponent. I was pleased the President realized I'm a professional and not a politician. So many people have problems with their brothers, but I have no problem with Bill, and I hope he doesn't have any with me. We are very close. We operate in different worlds which only occasionally cross.

Q. Well, your brother's politics are very clear, very well-known. But few people know anything about your political beliefs. Is that by design?

A: I consider that a compliment. When you're doing my line of work and you're representing, as I have during one day in court, Clark Clifford, former secretary of defense under the Democrats, and Cap Weinberger, the defense secretary in a Republican Administration, I think it's important that be the case, and I want to keep it that way. Only my voting machine knows for sure.*

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