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Beyond Washington

Weingarten Leads Among Lawyers Erasing D.C., N.Y. Divide

By Brooke A. Masters
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 4, 2005; Page E01

Defense attorney Reid H. Weingarten is a Washington fixture.

A former Justice Department prosecutor and long-time District resident, he has had a piece of almost every major public corruption scandal of the past three decades, from the Abscam congressional bribery cases to the Clinton fundraising probe of the late 1990s.

"If you come into my office with a story that moves me, I'll take your case. My firm gives me that freedom," Reid H. Weingarten says. (Yoni Brook For The Washington Post)

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But these days, the rumpled former basketball player is spending more time on airplanes and the New York subway than he is in Washington area courtrooms. He is also studying up on accounting principles and securities fraud laws.

Over the past couple of years, Weingarten, 55, has become one of the nation's busiest and best-known white-collar defense attorneys, with clients involved in the high-profile scandals at WorldCom Inc., Enron Corp., Rite Aid Corp. and Tyco International Ltd.

And now his District-based law firm, Steptoe and Johnson LLP, has opened a New York office in an effort to cement Weingarten's and the firm's reputation as forces to be reckoned with in white-collar defense and complex business litigation.

"He's been a great trial lawyer for as long as I've known him, but he really exploded on the scene with [the 1998 acquittal of former agriculture secretary Mike] Espy," said former deputy attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr., who met Weingarten when both were prosecuting public corruption cases in the late 1970s. "Now he's not just a Washington lawyer, he's a lawyer with a national reputation."

Traditionally, the Washington and New York legal communities have not overlapped much. Washington stars have tended to have government-oriented practices, such as antitrust and environmental regulation, while New York lawyers were more focused on financial areas, like mergers and acquisitions. Even within the white-collar defense bar, Washington lawyers historically focused on public corruption cases and regulatory investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission or other government agencies, while New Yorkers had a stronger focus on criminal fraud cases.

In recent years, that has begun to change, in part because mergers have created many megafirms and in part because so many SEC probes are often conducted jointly with state and federal prosecutors. Still, Weingarten's success in the New York courts remains unusual for a District lawyer. Weingarten most recently hit the headlines with his fervent defense last month of former WorldCom chief executive Bernard J. Ebbers. Though Ebbers was convicted, his lawyer won praise for a deft cross-examination of the government's chief witness and an impassioned closing argument. And, given the negative outcome, Weingarten came in for relatively little second-guessing, despite a risky decision to put his client on the stand.

The reasons are twofold. Unlike many big shot white-collar defense attorneys, Weingarten has more wins under his belt than losses, including the acquittals in recent years of Espy, former Tyco general counsel Mark A. Belnick and former Teamsters president Ron Carey.

Plus, he's also the quintessential "good guy," universally liked and praised by colleagues, opponents, jurors and clients. Even off the record, friends and adversaries speak well of him.

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