New Orleans Saints tailback Reggie Bush, aided by a lawyer known for representing Hollywood celebrities, settled a lawsuit over alleged payments to Bush and his family while he was still at the University of Southern California.
Bush’s lawyer, Shawn Chapman Holley, has made a career out of keeping high-profile clients like Bush out of the spotlight. That means resolving claims before cases are filed, avoiding court appearances and staying mum on out-of-court settlements, she said in an interview. The Los Angeles native honed her skills as a public defender, on the O.J. Simpson defense team as a protégé of Johnnie Cochran, and in four years of rescuing celebrities at her present law firm.
“I came over here and I was a fish out of water,” Holley said of joining veteran entertainment lawyer Howard Weitzman, who was setting up the firm Kinsella, Weitzman, Iser, Kump and Aldisert LLP in Santa Monica, California. “We had all these celebrity clients with entertainment business litigation cases, and then suddenly they also had DUIs. My whole thing took off from there.”
Holley declined to comment on the Bush case. The settlement, confirmed by Edward P. Swan, a San Diego-based lawyer who also represents Bush, avoids a deposition of Bush that, according to an April 22 Los Angeles Times report, may have been used by the National Collegiate Athletic Association in a probe of payments to USC athletes.
The 25-year-old Bush was drafted out of USC in Los Angeles as the second overall pick in the 2006 National Football League draft. The Trojans earned a share of the 2003 national title and the outright 2004 championship with Bush in their backfield. In 2005, he won the Heisman Trophy as college football’s most outstanding player.
Bush was sued in 2007 by a San Diego sports marketer, Lloyd Lake, who claimed he provided Bush and his family with $291,000 in money and goods, including a vehicle and housing, while the running back was at USC, according to a Dec. 28 California appeals court ruling.
Lake’s lawsuit followed a settlement Bush and his family reached with Lake’s former business partner, Michael Michaels, for undisclosed terms, over the same claims, according to court records. The state appeals court in December ruled that Lake couldn’t be forced to arbitrate his claims, opening the door for depositions of Bush, Lake and Michaels.
Bush, who never signed a contract with Lake and Michaels, didn’t receive improper payments, Holley said.
Bush scored five touchdowns rushing and another three receiving last season for the Saints, who won their first Super Bowl. Lake’s lawyer Brian Watkins, USC spokesman Tim Tessalone, and Stacey Osburn, an NCAA spokeswoman, declined to comment.
Holley said her success in representing well-known clients like Bush is the product of years of legal practice, including a caseload filled with drunk-driving and paparazzi-assaults by the famous and almost famous.
Her clients have included actress Lindsay Lohan, hotel heiress Paris Hilton and Hilton’s “The Simple Life” co-star Nicole Richie, rappers Snoop Dogg and the late Tupac Shakur, as well as boxer Mike Tyson.
When Richie was sentenced to four days for a second drunken-driving conviction, a judge gave her the choice of serving her time in the notoriously overcrowded and scary Los Angeles County jail or reporting to a private lockup with better amenities.
Holley persuaded the reality-TV star to pick the county jail, figuring she would be released soon after booking. In a pay-to-stay jail, she would have had to serve the entire term.
The county jail was so crowded that authorities released Richie after 82 minutes to make room for more serious offenders, Holley said.
Holley avoids jury trials, moves court dates to throw off journalists and paparazzi and works with prosecutors and judges to hold cases to “one news cycle.”
For clients making plea bargains, she tries to work out every detail in advance with prosecutors, including the sentence. That way it can all be done in a single court hearing.
“She knows the system inside out,” said Dan Jeffries, a supervising assistant city attorney in Los Angeles who prosecuted Hilton and has handled dozens of drunken-driving cases in which Holley represented the accused. “She knows what we can do and what we cannot do.”
Holley, 48, is married to Dorian Holley, the vocal coach on “American Idol,” the TV talent show, and a background singer for Michael Jackson for 22 years. She has a 7-year-old daughter and two older stepdaughters.
She started her legal career as a public defender, handling cases that included rape and murder. She caught the attention of Cochran, the now-deceased attorney, who saw her at work in a “long and passionate” hearing. He offered her a job as an associate at his firm.
“In L.A., particularly African-American L.A., Johnnie Cochran was the be-all and end-all,” said Holley, who is black. “Way before O.J., everybody knew who Johnnie was. He had a Rolls Royce. He was always somebody who was very involved in the community, and we all looked up to Johnnie. So when Johnnie Cochran offers you a job at his law office, that is a pretty big deal.”
Five months after Holley joined the firm, Simpson hired Cochran as part of the team that got him acquitted on charges he murdered his ex-wife and her friend. As one of the few lawyers at Cochran’s firm with criminal-defense experience, Holley was on the case full time for the next year-and-a-half.
After Simpson’s trial, Holley headed criminal cases at Cochran’s firm for high-profile clients including Tupac Shakur.
Representing Shakur led Holley to a new area of expertise, defending celebrities against people she calls “grifters,” plaintiffs who make unfounded allegations in hopes of getting a payoff. Those cases typically settle before a complaint gets filed because clients, even when the allegations could be defeated in court, want to avoid publicity, she said.
Hilton, the heiress and socialite sentenced to 45 days in 2007 for driving with a suspended license, was one of the few clients Holley was unable to shield from jail and media exposure. The judge ordered Hilton back to jail after county sheriffs’ officials released her after a few days to finish her sentence in home confinement.
“Paris Hilton got treated differently by the judge than anyone would have, in my opinion and experience, because of who she was,” Holley said. “It’s hard for me to believe he didn’t treat her differently because she was Paris Hilton.”