Ex-Lobbyists Say Justice Dept. Urged Their Firing

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 22, 2006

Two former pro-Israel lobbyists allege that Justice Department prosecutors pressured their employer, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), to fire them and stop paying their legal fees to make it more difficult for them to defend themselves in a criminal investigation.

In a court filing last week, lawyers for Steven J. Rosen and Keith Weissman contended that beginning in late 2004, months before the pair were charged, government officials "subtly and not so subtly pressured AIPAC" to take action against Rosen and Weissman.

In so doing, the lawyers said, the government interfered with the pair's "right to defend themselves, their right to counsel, and their right to due process of law." They cited a ruling last month by a U.S. District judge in New York who found that the Justice Department policy of pressuring employers to cut off payment of legal fees to employees was "unconstitutional" and "an abuse of power."

Rosen and Weissman were indicted in August 2005 on charges of conspiring to violate the 1917 Espionage Act by receiving national defense information orally from a Pentagon employee and transmitting it to journalists and employees of the Israeli Embassy who were not entitled to receive it.

The case is the first time civilians not employed by the government have been indicted under the 89-year-old statute in a government leak case. Judge T.S. Ellis III of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia is considering the defendants' motion to dismiss the case on the grounds that the espionage statute is unconstitutional because of its vague language and its potential violation of the First Amendment.

AIPAC fired the pair in March 2005, and the organization, which had been making monthly payments for their legal fees since the government investigation began in September 2004, ended them in March 2005 for Rosen and in May 2005 for Weissman.

During that period, the FBI also was investigating AIPAC itself and other employees. But only Rosen and Weissman were indicted.

A spokesman for AIPAC, Patrick Dorton, said yesterday that "any suggestion that AIPAC acted at the government's behest is completely false." He said the organization's "decisions on dismissal and legal fees were made independently and based on the facts and our commitment to doing the right thing in a difficult situation."

A spokesman for the prosecutors, Jim Rybiscki, said there would be no comment on the filing.

Rosen and Weissman's attorneys, Abbe Lowell and John Nassikas, are seeking a hearing on the matter and either a dismissal of the charges against them or "relief for the government's wrongful interference." In the New York case, the judge did not dismiss the case but rather encouraged the employer to resume paying legal fees.

The prosecutors' alleged actions were based on a January 2003 memo to federal prosecutors from then-Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson in the aftermath of the corporate investigations of Enron Corp. and accounting firm Arthur Andersen.

The memo stated that when weighing prosecutions of corporations, consideration should be given to whether the organization is "protecting its culpable employees" by advancing attorney's fees, keeping them on the payroll and having joint defense agreements under which they share information about the government investigation.

There have been conferences between AIPAC and the defendants about the paying of fees, but they clashed over what an agreement would cover beyond the legal fees. In the motion, the defendants alleged that "sometime after AIPAC became certain that it was not going to be charged itself," it offered a lump sum if the defendants would sign a release that the organization would not have to pay more.

A source close to AIPAC maintained yesterday that the defendants refused to agree to a lump payment if it would have meant that in the future they could not sue AIPAC for either their firing or their legal fees.

Rosen and Weissman's trial, which had been set for Aug. 7, has been postponed.

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