This Bleeding Heart Lawyer's Pet Cause: Fat Cats

Reid Weingarten now defends vilified execs

Reid H. Weingarten is not like other high-price defense attorneys. He went to law school with plans to "bring peace to this earth." Twice, he almost ran off to Africa to prosecute war criminals. And in his spare time, he manages a foundation and a charter school for inner-city teens that he helped found in 1997; up until this year, he taught Western philosophy there as well. In many ways, Weingarten is your typical liberal do-gooder. But he also happens to be Bernard J. Ebbers' attorney.

A self-professed "hard-core child of the '60s," Weingarten, 52, now finds himself the nation's top defender of disgraced corporate officials. In addition to the former WorldCom Inc. chief executive, his clients include former Enron Corp. chief accountant Richard Causey, ousted Tyco International counsel Mark Belnick, and former Rite Aid Corp. exec Franklin C. Brown. Although they may not care for his politics, they appreciate his record: He won acquittals for former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy and former Teamsters President Ron Carey in the past several years.

The irony here is hard to avoid. But suggest to Weingarten that he lost his way somewhere between Dickinson School of Law at Penn State University and Steptoe & Johnson in Washington, where he gets fees of around $600 per hour, and he'll let you know just how wrong you are. Today's climate of retribution makes it all the more imperative, he says, that accused executives get a fair hearing. Never in his 25 years as a state and federal prosecutor and defense counsel has so much political pressure been put on the Justice Dept. to bring home some trophies, he asserts. "I feel like I'm in the French Revolution, defending the nobility against the howling mob," says Weingarten. "They want to guillotine these people without any evidence."

Weingarten's style in court is straightforward: He portrays his clients as well-intentioned souls who may have made a mistake or two but hardly deserve the prosecution's heavy hand. This worked well with Espy, who was exonerated of accepting illegal gifts even after poultry giant Tyson Foods Inc. pleaded guilty to giving him those gifts. The jury was swayed by Weingarten's argument that Espy's forced resignation was sufficient sanction for his relatively minor indiscretion of accepting meals and sports tickets. In the Carey case, Weingarten not only won an acquittal for his client on perjury charges but also made the union boss into a sympathetic figure in jurors' eyes. "I felt sorry for him," said one. "I actually believed he was a good guy trying to carry out good things for the Teamsters."

Look for more of the same with Weingarten's current roster of clients. The contours of Weingarten's likely defense of Brown are the clearest since he was indicted in June: Weingarten will argue that whatever accounting errors took place at the company, they are a far cry from the lying, cheating, and stealing that should be the benchmark for such a case. He will also point out that Brown helped build Rite Aid. "This guy was with the company when it was a couple of drug stores," Weingarten says. "The idea he was looting it at the end is absurd."

As for Ebbers, Weingarten doesn't believe Justice has the goods on him--and it won't, he says, unless it can wrest some damning new evidence from former CFO Scott Sullivan. But if Ebbers is put on trial, Weingarten is likely to argue that Ebbers simply didn't know what was going on. He does admit it might be hard to find a jury sympathetic to reviled public figures such as Ebbers. "I'm looking for 12 Martians," he jokes.

With so many high-profile clients, Weingarten should be more stressed out than he is. His schedule would be impossible to maintain if Steptoe hadn't given him carte blanche to work on only those cases he chooses to. His clients, he says, require relatively little care and feeding; one of his challenges is persuading them not to talk to the press.

Weingarten, on the other hand, is frequently criticized for grandstanding. Among his detractors is Representative Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.), a former federal judge whom Weingarten unsuccessfully prosecuted for soliciting bribes in the early '80s. Hastings believes Weingarten went after him to advance his legal career. A spokesman said Hastings would have some "choice words" for Weingarten, but then decided not to comment.

Some also find Weingarten's attempt to make every case into a cause a trifle annoying. "This isn't about grandiose principles," says fellow prosecutor-turned-defense-attorney Joseph E. diGenova. "It's about making money."

Whatever the criticism, Weingarten will have to draw on all of his experience in the coming weeks. Mostly, he will try to ward off indictments. But if he can't, look for lengthy trials and blistering defenses. More so than most attorneys, Weingarten is almost constitutionally incapable of settling a case. This has gotten him in trouble on occasion--such as when he unsuccessfully used an insanity defense for an FBI agent accused of trying to blow up his wife (the agent received a 23-year sentence). But for the most part, Weingarten's stubbornness has served him well. And his new clients, still smarting from their unceremonious exit from the executive suite, will expect nothing less.

By Dan Carney in Washington

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.