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Leading Skilling's Defense: a Lawyer of 'Enormous Talent'

'Jeff Skilling has nothing to hide' in Enron's collapse, says Daniel Petrocelli, famed for winning the Simpson civil case.

February 20, 2004|Lisa Girion | Times Staff Writer

Former Enron executive Jeffrey K. Skilling's new lawyer, Daniel Petrocelli, is known around Los Angeles for a litigation strategy that can be summed up in three words: attack, attack, attack.

The Century City-based corporate lawyer, whose clients include Walt Disney Co. and Unocal Corp., is famous for his role as surrogate prosecutor in the civil case that pinned the slayings of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman on O.J. Simpson. Petrocelli's $33.5-million judgment in the case gave the victims' families a measure of justice that eluded prosecutors in the criminal murder trial.

Time magazine put Petrocelli's face on its cover. There were calls for him to run for Los Angeles County district attorney. And within the district attorney's office, Simpson's defeat, albeit under a lower burden of proof, so buoyed spirits that there were half-serious whispers of nominating Petrocelli as prosecutor of the year.

"That's the level of respect that he has," said Steve Meister, a criminal defense attorney who was a prosecutor in the district attorney's office at the time.

Unlike many litigators, Petrocelli has never worked as a prosecutor. And he doesn't have a lot of criminal experience, even in the white-collar arena. That makes Skilling, among the nation's most high-profile defendants, one of Petrocelli's few criminal-defense clients.

But veteran white-collar defense lawyers, including some who have opposed him, believe Petrocelli will have little trouble transferring his experience in heading large teams in complex business litigation.

"He's an aggressive, effective lawyer, and if this is going to be a donnybrook, he'd be a good guy to have in your corner," said Gary Lincenberg, a partner at Los Angeles' Bird, Marella, Boxer & Wolpert and a former assistant U.S. attorney who does white-collar defense.

Lawyers in the Washington, D.C., office of Petrocelli's firm, Los Angeles-based O'Melveny & Myers, had been counseling Skilling for a couple of years through his congressional testimony and government investigations. When it appeared prosecutors were preparing to charge their client, the firm tapped Petrocelli to serve as lead trial counsel.

Skilling's team already featured heavy hitters, including Bruce Hiler, a former Securities and Exchange Commission enforcement lawyer, and Mark Holscher, a former assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted former Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss and, as a partner at O'Melveny, helped win freedom for Wen Ho Lee, a nuclear scientist accused of spying for China.

Petrocelli -- the marquee member of a O'Melveny litigation department that was named best in the nation last month by American Lawyer--said his limited exposure in the criminal arena wouldn't be a handicap in this case.

His newest client's indictment came only a couple of weeks after Petrocelli took up the defense, but the lawyer was ready.

"Jeff Skilling has nothing to hide," Petrocelli told reporters in Houston on Thursday. "He did not steal. He did not lie. He did not take anyone's money, and, in the 60 pages of charges filed by the United States government, they don't even accuse him of these things -- and it's not from lack of trying."

Later Thursday, in a telephone interview as he waited for his return flight to Los Angeles, he said: "This is really not a criminal case. This is really a complicated business case."

He added that he believed the government was making a mistake in going after Skilling.

"They are trying to put on trial business practices that are common in lots of different companies and trying to hold my client responsible because he was COO and then CEO," he said. "They don't really have anything on him, and we are extremely disappointed they are going forward. And we are extremely confident."

Petrocelli knows not only how to sell a message but how to craft one, according to those who have watched him in the courtroom.

"In the Simpson case, he did a terrific job in narrowing and focusing the plaintiffs' case and presenting it with great clarity," said USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky. "That's an enormous talent to look at something so complicated and present it with great clarity, and I thought he was masterful."

Petrocelli also has a reputation for being a thorough and, at times, intimidating interrogator. His dramatic two-day examination of Simpson was so effective that one commentator said he left "the defendant's credibility more tattered than a Big Mac in an Insinkerator."

A New Jersey native, Petrocelli went to UCLA in the hope of becoming a jazz trumpeter. He later reconsidered and went to Southwestern University Law School, where he graduated magna cum laude. He started at a 100-member firm in Los Angeles, working his way up to lead trial counsel for corporate defendants and plaintiffs in complex civil cases.

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