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

March 12, 1995|Ronald J. Ostrow and Robert L. Jackson | 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

WASHINGTON — 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?

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