The Lewinsky Team's Silent Partner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 30, 1998; Page A17
He is Monica Lewinsky's other lawyer, the one keeping a vanishingly low profile in the midst of a maelstrom.
While his avuncular colleague William H. Ginsburg conducts a one-man media onslaught, Nathaniel Speights has been the silent partner, quietly negotiating with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr over the fate of the 24-year-old former White House intern at the center of a sex scandal roiling the presidency.
For Speights, a Washington lawyer with a solid reputation but little experience in maneuvering for a client immersed in a national scandal, this is easily the largest case in his 22-year career. Part of a two-man downtown firm, Speights is not returning phone calls and has yet to speak publicly. Even his law partner, Iverson Mitchell, will not comment about him. His secretary declined to send out routine biographical information or simply a resume without her boss's permission, which yesterday he did not give.
Though he is well-known in Washington's African American bar, he was hardly an obvious choice for the job in a city overrun with veterans in the art of defending against the charges of special prosecutors. How he came to be recruited last week by Ginsburg is not known. But friends and colleagues said yesterday he was more than equal to the task, describing him as a savvy, hard-nosed tactician with a strong record of winning in Washington courts.
"He has a nice, direct, smooth style," said Ronald Crump, a former assistant U.S. attorney who is a friend of Speights and has seen him in action. "A lot of lawyers are esoteric in a courtroom, more interested in sounding good than in representing their client well. That's not Nate. He's one of the most capable, competent and conscientious lawyers I know."
At 48, he is a leader in the local cadre of black trial lawyers. Speights worked as an assistant U.S. attorney, served as chief of the law enforcement section of the city corporation counsel's office and headed the Washington Bar Association, an African American bar group. He went into private practice in 1984. A graduate of the University of Miami Law School, Speights is married and has two children.
His relative anonymity throughout the Lewinsky case stands in sharp contrast to the omnipresent Ginsburg. That has caused some observers to speculate that he and Speights have settled on a division of labor. Ginsburg, a friend of the Lewinsky family, is the guy bucking up his client while hectoring and pleading on the airwaves in hopes of swaying prosecutors to grant his client immunity. Speights, meanwhile, is assigned to do the bulk of the talking with Starr and his staff.
By recruiting Speights, Lewinsky's side has added some local expertise that Ginsburg, a Los Angeles lawyer who specializes in medical malpractice, doesn't have. And some African American lawyers said yesterday that bringing on board a black attorney could help if the team ever ends up arguing before a D.C. jury. It's an approach, however, that can backfire if jurors sense that the attorney is not fully participating.
"If you just have a token black lawyer and it's obvious to a D.C. jury that the person is just there for cosmetic purposes, the jurors will resent it," said Thomas Williamson, a black partner at Covington & Burling. "During the Watergate trials, some of the defendants brought along black lawyers who did almost nothing and I think that really hurt their cause."
By all accounts, Speights is no wallflower. In 1990, he defended Chandra Shealey, a Howard University student accused of resisting arrest after a plainclothes officer charged her with illegally crossing a street. Shealey alleged that the officer had attacked her, drawing an offer of free legal assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union. Speights took the case and ultimately the District decided not to press charges.
In 1989, he defended a Baptist pastor accused in a paternity suit of fathering a courthouse employee's daughter in a case marking the first time that a D.C. court agreed to consider DNA. Speights argued, unsuccessfully, that DNA analysis was prejudicial because it relied on a database that underrepresented the black population in North America.
He hasn't always been so press-shy. During the O.J. Simpson case, Speights opined as a pundit for CNN's "Burden of Proof" and for Legal Times. He said in Legal Times that both sides were "doing marvelously well" but concluded that "the case ultimately is going to be resolved by the forensic testing."
But Crump said he wasn't surprised that his friend was keeping tight-lipped given his new fame: "He's an exceptionally discreet man. He's not going to be trying his case in the media. He isn't from the Johnnie Cochran school of lawyering."
Staff researcher Mary Lou White contributed to this report.
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