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Lawyer With a Cause Is a Study in Contrasts

February 05, 1987|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

He's for gun control.

He's an ardent environmentalist who makes pilgrimages to the Himalayas.

He's a backer of political candidates who often are too liberal to stand a chance.

He's got a nose for tyranny in the wind, especially any odorous breeze out of Washington. . . .

OK, this is a sketch of a radical-fringe Californian, a macrobiotic, mystical type dressed in robes and righteousness, right?

Nope.

Partner in Big Firm

It's a partial portrait of Francis M. Wheat, a 66-year-old, conservatively suited securities attorney and partner in Los Angeles' biggest law firm, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher. (Among other things, Gibson, Dunn handles President Reagan's private legal matters and lists Reagan's former attorney general, William French Smith, among its partners.)

So Wheat, who once served on the Securities and Exchange Commission, is a member of the Establishment, the Wall Street/Washington Establishment, no less.

But Wheat is a bundle of contradictions. While his clients have included such heavyweights as defense contractor Textron, he is no stranger to lost causes and underdog issues. For example, he says he "worked like a dog" for the California handgun control initiative that was crushed by voters in 1982, and he is on the board of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, which has often challenged powerful economic interests.

And those are some indications why Wheat, who has kept to the background throughout much of his career, is getting a first-ever, high-profile tribute Wednesday from the Center for Law in the Public Interest, a 16-year-old enterprise whose causes have ranged from defense of homeless alcoholics to a lengthy anti-freeway battle. Wheat has been on the center's board for 12 years and, by all accounts, has been one of its most active trustees.

The center will use the money raised from its dinner at the Music Center to establish a fellowship in Wheat's name to train young lawyers in public interest litigation. New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, a possible Democratic presidential candidate, will be the chief speaker, making the evening potentially a national political event.

Wheat's name has proved a powerful draw. Even before Cuomo was added to the schedule, dinner organizers say they sold more than half the tickets through a mailing of 900 invitations. The dinner is now almost sold out, with firms and individuals shelling out about $140,000 for 700 tickets at $200 apiece to an event honoring one lawyer among 20,000 in Los Angeles County.

What sets Wheat apart, friends and colleagues say, is what he does after a long day spent working for a client such as Playboy magazine magnate Hugh Hefner or a bankrupt brokerage firm.

"He has a unique dedication to public affairs," said longtime colleague Warren Christopher, who heads Los Angeles' second biggest law firm, O'Melveny & Myers, and who was deputy secretary of state in the Carter Administration. "He does not just lend his name to causes; he puts his shoulder to the wheel and pushes, pushes, pushes. . . ."

Marsha Kwalwasser, the center's vice president, said: "Once he believes he's right, he hangs on and uses his enormous powers of persuasion to win people over. Frank does not back down."

Steven Meiers of Gibson Dunn put it this way: "He will run into a brick wall until it falls over."

Wheat--whose one blatant eccentricity is a penchant for dinosaur-emblazoned ties--seems nonplussed by the attention.

But then Wheat, appointed to the SEC in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, is still chaffing over a 1985 Los Angeles Magazine article that ranked him 43rd among the 50 most powerful people in town.

'Certainly Very Silly'

"That was a fluke," he said the other day. "I'll be damned if I know why I made that list. It's crazy. It certainly was very silly."

For those who know him, such a reaction was predictable. "Frank is self-effacing in an extreme way," Kwalwasser said.

But those who know him seem to have bushels of Wheat stories.

Nancy Mintie of the Inner City Law Center, an advocacy firm for homeless people, remembers that when she was operating out of a trailer on Skid Row three years ago, Wheat stopped by for an afternoon.

Despite the trailer's seedy air and the scorching heat, Mintie recalled that Wheat was not put off.

"Frank saw through all of the appearances," she said. "He figured out that we were legitimate." She said Wheat has since given money and helped put together a fund-raising campaign for Inner City.

Supported Evers' Bid

Myrlie Evers, widow of assassinated civil rights leader Medgar Evers, said Wheat was an early supporter in her unsuccessful 1970 bid for the 24th Congressional District seat in California. She was one of two women running for federal office in this state then.

"He put himself on the line to support me," said Evers, now a candidate for Los Angeles' 10th District city council seat.

Mintie, Meiers and others said Wheat seems to have no enemies, even among those who disagree with him.

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