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Wallach Seen as a Successful Attorney Who Wanted More

December 23, 1987|DAN MORAIN | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — On the surface, they could hardly be more unlike: Edwin Meese III, conservative both politically and personally; and E. Robert Wallach, the sophisticated, liberal lawyer from this sophisticated, liberal city.

Meese, whose taste in apparel runs to rumpled gray suits, campaigned against pornography and abortion as one of President Reagan's closest advisers.

And Wallach, whose affectations include Brioni suits, roses in his lapels and a name spelled entirely with lower-case letters, worked for the reelection of Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, for nuclear disarmament, for legal aid for the poor.

Debating Partners

Yet, these former law school classmates--UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall, Class of '58--maintained their close ties for three decades after they had served as debating partners, after Wallach beat out Meese as class valedictorian.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday December 24, 1987 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 6 Metro Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
A story on San Francisco attorney E. Robert Wallach that appeared in Wednesday's editions of The Times incorrectly identified a magazine that had interviewed Wallach. The magazine is California Business.

And now Wallach has been indicted in the growing scandal involving a New York defense contractor named Wedtech--and has embroiled his powerful friend in the scandal as well.

In San Francisco, Wallach had gained a reputation as a top personal injury lawyer who won enormous judgments for victims of accidents and negligence.

But he wanted more, and Meese gave him the chance for it. Wallach "wrapped himself around Meese," said one acquaintance who asked not to be named, in an alliance with an Administration whose views seemed so at odds with his own.

Boasted About Access

To friends back home in San Francisco, Wallach boasted of 24-hour-a-day access to the man who was one of Reagan's top three White House advisers in his first term and his attorney general in the second. If any of them wanted to get a message to the highest levels of government, Wallach would oblige.

"Who am I in Washington if I'm not Ed Meese's friend?" Wallach said in a recent interview.

At the peak of his power back East, Wallach had the heady experience of representing U.S. interests before a U.N. human rights panel. He commanded $500-an-hour fees from his clients. And he made a million dollars by lobbying for business for Wedtech, a go-go defense contractor in the South Bronx that had been founded by the son of Puerto Rican immigrants.

By last summer, however, Wedtech was bankrupt. And Wallach had a feeling that he would end up like other politicians and high rollers who had become embroiled with that ill-starred company--felled by prosecutors investigating bribes and influence peddling that turned tiny Wedtech, a struggling minority-owned firm at the start of the Reagan Administration, into a $100-million-a-year defense contractor.

"I worry that I'll be indicted. It really scares," he told the California Business Journal.

Facing 18 Counts

That is what happened Tuesday. In an 18-count indictment returned by a New York grand jury, Wallach was charged with mail fraud, securities fraud and conspiracy to defraud the United States. He received more than $2 million in cash and securities, according to the indictment, to attempt to influence Meese as part of Wedtech's effort to gain government business.

All this sprang from three decades of friendship that, according to Meese's friends, Wallach cynically managed to his own advantage.

"The word sycophant comes to mind," a classmate of both men said of Wallach. He bluntly added that Wallach "used Meese."

A public-interest lawyer who asked not to be named said: "In the '70s, Bob associated with the trendy public-interest segment of the bar. Then, when Reagan got elected, Ed Meese presented a lot of opportunity."

Wallach had done well enough without Meese.

"In all of San Francisco, there are perhaps a dozen lawyers, if that, of his caliber," attorney Ephraim Margolin said. "We are not talking about a flash in a pan."

He won the first multimillion-dollar verdict in New Mexico, $3.6 million for a child who was brain-damaged at birth. For the family of a La Jolla developer who died in a 1978 Pacific Southwest Airlines crash in San Diego, he won $3 million after telling jurors that the award would make the airline safer.

In 1980, after Reagan's first election, the San Francisco Examiner called Wallach one of the top five lawyers in the city--the man to see for those who wanted access to the Reagan Administration and couldn't "bear the thought of talking to a Republican."

Office in Washington

Wallach set up a law practice in Washington and kept his San Francisco practice when the Reagan Administration took office in 1981. That move left some of his friends puzzled.

"I don't get it," his former partner, David Baum, said when asked why such a man would go to Washington with the most conservative administration in decades.

Wallach explained that he would rather have gone to Washington with Franklin D. Roosevelt. "But how often do you get the chance?" he asked. "What lawyer in San Francisco with any sense of community would not have viewed it not just as an opportunity but as a responsibility?"

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