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Defense Lawyers Taste Turmoil

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 23, 1998; Page A20

For Washington's cadre of defense lawyers, it doesn't get any better than this.

Scandals are career-making moments for lawyers, and the allegations that President Clinton had an affair with a White House intern could turn some local lawyers into stars. So, while Washington players and politicians run for cover, more than a few lawyers are trying to inch their way into the klieg lights.

"Attorneys love scandals," said Plato Cacheris, who represented Fawn Hall and convicted spy Aldrich Ames but so far is sitting this one out. "They mean that people need lawyers, and lawyers get to shine."

At pressure-filled times like this, they may also stumble, or at least be accused of stumbling by fellow members of the bar. Robert S. Bennett, Clinton's attorney, is being roundly criticized for failing to settle the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit. There is also speculation that Bennett may have inspired Linda Tripp to secretly tape-record her friend Monica Lewinsky by questioning Tripp's integrity in a Newsweek article months ago.

Other lawyers aren't taking hits yet, probably because they're new to the case. Vernon E. Jordan Jr. has hired William Hundley, one of his partners at the powerhouse firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld and a highly regarded litigator who prosecuted Mafiosi as head of the Justice Department's organized crime and racketeering section under Robert F. Kennedy.

Initially, Lewinsky took the advice of Jordan and retained Frank Carter, a former D.C. public defender now in private practice, who once defended former interior secretary James Watt in an independent counsel investigation. In an interview yesterday, Carter said he got the job through a standard referral call from Jordan.

"I'm not a social friend. I've never been to his house, and we don't belong to the same clubs," Carter said.

Earlier this week, though, Lewinsky dropped Carter and signed on with William Ginsburg, a medical malpractice specialist based in Los Angeles and an acquaintance of Lewinsky's family. The switch led some observers to surmise that Lewinsky's parents realized it didn't make sense to work with a lawyer handpicked by Jordan, given that the super-fixer's interests soon might collide with those of their daughter.

Carter declined to speculate about why Lewinsky dropped him, citing confidentiality rules. Already, local lawyers are lambasting Ginsburg and suggesting that he is in way over his head. They say high-profile Washington scandals are a world apart from personal injury cases in California. And they contend that Ginsburg may already have bungled badly on Wednesday when he stated that his client was sticking to her story "at this time." The unavoidable implication, they say, was that Lewinsky plans to change her tale.

"That was one of the weirdest statements I've ever heard out of a lawyer's mouth," said one Washington lawyer who declined to be identified and acknowledged that he coveted Ginsburg's new job.

Tripp is being represented by James Moody, a Washington lawyer in solo practice who said he is stunned to be in the middle of an imbroglio.

"This is has been an unplanned feeding frenzy," said Moody, who struggled yesterday to answer more than 100 phone messages. "My role here was to help a scared witness get in touch with a prosecutor, and now all of this has suddenly gone ballistic."

Moody's expertise is in agricultural deregulation, he said, and he's proudest of a case that brought an end to a citrus growers cartel in California. He isn't sure how Tripp got his name, but he has averaged 22-hour days since the case hit the headlines, and he expects more of the same for some time.

As independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation proceeds, others who could be caught in the maelstrom might soon need a good lawyer. And even after the music stops and everyone has counsel, the possibility remains that clients will switch lawyers once matters heat up. Those caught up in a rollicking Washington brouhaha often trade up for more experienced lawyers.

But some of the most practiced and storied defense lawyers say they will not be participating. Ethics rules prevent lawyers from representing anyone whose interests could conflict with those of a client at the same firm, which means many lawyers would have to beg off even if asked. Super-litigator Brendan Sullivan, for instance, said yesterday that because David Kendall, his partner at Williams & Connolly, is working for the president, he can't get involved.

Staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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