By Peter Baker
Monica S. Lewinsky unceremoniously dumped her flamboyant and controversial lawyer, William H. Ginsburg, yesterday and replaced him with a pair of Washington's most seasoned white-collar criminal attorneys in an attempt to head off any indictment for perjury or other charges.
With independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr moving closer to a decision on whether to prosecute the former White House intern, the Lewinsky family recruited Jacob A. Stein and Plato Cacheris, each of whom has played a prominent role in some of the more high-profile political scandals of recent years.
The two were selected with an eye toward reaching an agreement with Starr in which Lewinsky would testify about whether she had an affair with President Clinton in return for assurances that she would not be prosecuted. Even before Ginsburg was informed of the change yesterday, the new legal team was moving swiftly to reach out to Starr, dropping by his office to meet with prosecutors.
Ginsburg, a Los Angeles medical malpractice lawyer unfamiliar with criminal law or Washington politics, became an inescapable presence on television early in the investigation, popping up on talk shows across the dial. But his often contradictory statements and unpredictable behavior ultimately convinced the family that he was undermining Lewinsky's legal position, according to people close to the situation.
Ginsburg received word of the switch yesterday in a telephone call from Lewinsky, shortly before she emerged from a Washington office building to showcase her two new attorneys before television cameras. Accompanying them was Nathaniel H. Speights, a Washington criminal defense lawyer who will continue to serve on her team.
In drawing a sharp contrast with the loquacious Ginsburg, her new lawyers appeared for just a few moments and said virtually nothing to reporters before retreating into the building.
The family issued a statement calling the decision a "mutual agreement" and expressing gratitude for Ginsburg's work. In an interview last night, Ginsburg denied that he was fired, saying he consented to the move because his "strained relations with Mr. Starr and my strong feelings about the impropriety of his approach" may have made it too problematic for him to represent her.
The decision to replace Ginsburg drew near-universal praise in the Washington legal community, where the mercurial Californian was viewed as a publicity-hungry amateur. "That's one of the smartest moves they could make," said Kenneth Robinson, a prominent defense attorney. "I think Mr. Ginsburg was out of his league. . . . She's in a horrible spot because of Ginsburg."
"It'll go a long way toward clearing it up," added G. Allen Dale, another veteran District criminal lawyer. Cacheris and Stein are "not awed by the players as I think a lot of people outside the Beltway are."
Stein and Cacheris are among Washington's most well-connected and experienced attorneys. Stein brings the distinct experience of having once been in Starr's position, serving as an independent counsel himself during the 1980s investigation of top Reagan White House aide Edwin Meese III. Just last week, Stein was given an award by the Council for Court Excellence, presented by Starr himself, the group's president.
Cacheris represented former attorney general John N. Mitchell during Watergate and Lt. Col. Oliver L. North's former secretary Fawn Hall during Iran-contra, as well as other clients during the BCCI and ABSCAM investigations. He also brings tight personal relationships with several of the key players in the current saga.
His close friend and former law partner, William G. Hundley, represents Vernon E. Jordan Jr., the Clinton confidant being investigated for his role in trying to find a job for Lewinsky at a time when her testimony was being sought in the Paula Jones lawsuit against Clinton. Cacheris agreed to represent Jordan's limousine driver if he were summoned to the grand jury, which he was not.
Cacheris also is a former partner of Gerard Treanor, who represents several other grand jury witnesses, and is close friends with Robert S. Bennett, who represents Clinton in the Jones case. Cacheris and Bennett are so close that Cacheris put him in touch with his tailor to improve Bennett's wardrobe when he went to work for Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. And Bennett tried to have Kathleen E. Willey, a former White House aide who alleged that Clinton made an unsolicited sexual advance toward her, hire Cacheris to represent her.
Lawyers involved, however, said there would be no conflict. "Even though Plato and I are the best of friends, he's going to represent his client and I'll represent mine," said Hundley, who also represented Mitchell during Watergate.
Each of the two new lawyers brings his own skills as well. Stein is known for filing top-rate legal motions, while Cacheris has built a reputation for getting along with prosecutors. "You combine Jake and Plato's talents . . . and it's hard to figure a base that isn't covered," said Washington white-collar lawyer Lawrence Barcella.
Ginsburg, a friend of Lewinsky's father hired the January night Starr's prosecutors confronted her in an Arlington hotel, brought no such background to the case. While widely praised as a civil attorney, Ginsburg had a sharp learning curve when it came to criminal law, as he later acknowledged.
He thought he had a binding immunity agreement with Starr that a court later deemed worthless. He suggested on national television that his client was immature and a fantasizer, seeming to hint one moment that she did have sex with Clinton and then denying it the next. He tipped off the news media as he escorted Lewinsky around town many evenings, but kept her in seclusion the rest of the time.
In recent weeks, he set up a photo shoot for Lewinsky so she could pose for Vanity Fair, saying she needed a pick-me-up because her "libido" was "imprisoned," a move that troubled many close to her.
And in what some people familiar with the situation described as the final straw, he published an open letter last week without first notifying her family in which he harshly attacked Starr, suggesting the prosecutor "may have succeeded in unmasking a sexual relationship between two consenting adults."
The situation grew bad enough that friends said Bernard Lewinsky's friendship with Ginsburg has been hurt. But Ginsburg disputed this. "The family has always approved of an aggressive approach to the case," he said, "but my aggressive approach didn't work. . . . Now they want fresh blood."
Still, Ginsburg defended his strategy, calling himself "a damn good trial lawyer," and maintaining he will "stand behind her all the way." In fact, he said, he will continue to speak out to media outlets that still want to have him so that he can spread the message that Starr is dangerous.
"I'm going to stand on the tallest rock that I can find and warn America that . . . Mr. Starr . . . is a menace, a danger, a nonconstitutional monster," Ginsburg said, calling himself a Republican. "He must be dealt with by the Congress and the American people."
Staff writers Susan Schmidt, Saundra Torry and Toni Locy contributed to this report.
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