The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jacob Stein, lawyer in Watergate and Lewinsky episodes, dies at 94

Jacob Stein, right, appears with his client Monica Lewinsky in 1998. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Jacob A. Stein, a Washington lawyer who participated in two of the most dramatic episodes of the modern U.S. presidency, winning the only high-profile acquittal in the Watergate affair and, later, helping obtain immunity for former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky after her affair with President Bill Clinton, died April 3 at his home in the District. He was 94.

The cause was multiple myeloma, said his daughter, Julie Stein. He was long associated with the firm Stein, Mitchell Beato & Missner.

Mr. Stein was considered a dean of lawyers in the nation’s capital, a litigator skilled in criminal as well as civil law who provided steady and savvy counsel to his clients and brought an old-world elegance to the bar.

His sartorial tastes ran to two-tone shoes, double-breasted suits and bow ties, a look that inspired one acquaintance to describe him as dressing “like the Great Gatsby.” His windowless office teemed with books — not only legal texts but also 18th- and 19th-century literature into which he retreated during his afternoon “siestas,” when he took no phone calls.

“He gives you a sense of tremendous sophistication, someone who’s good at nuances and reading character, much more of a judo expert than a football player,” a colleague once told the New York Times.

John J. Sirica, the federal judge who presided over the trials stemming from the Watergate burglary and coverup that drove President Richard M. Nixon from office, once described Mr. Stein as “one of the finest attorneys in Washington.”

Mr. Stein represented Kenneth W. Parkinson, a lawyer for the Committee for the Re-election of the President who was tried in 1974 alongside high-ranking Nixon aides H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, John D. Ehrlichman, John N. Mitchell and Robert C. Mardian. Only Parkinson, who was charged with conspiracy and obstruction of justice, was acquitted.

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During the trial, Mr. Stein presented Parkinson as an unwitting pawn of White House and campaign officials. Courtroom spectators noted that Mr. Stein physically separated his client from the other defendants and himself from their attorneys, as if to demonstrate Parkinson’s distance from their unlawful doings. In his closing argument, Mr. Stein wept, asking the jury to consider “what is good character worth?”

Should it be “cynically tossed out in favor of the testimony of confessed perjurers?” he implored them. “Doesn’t a lifetime where you built it up grain by grain weigh against that?”

Mr. Stein next found himself in the national news during the Reagan administration, when he was appointed independent counsel to investigate Edwin Meese III, Reagan’s adviser and prospective attorney general. Among other matters, questions had arisen about a $15,000 interest-free loan that Meese omitted from financial disclosure forms as well as federal jobs received by nine people who had helped Meese financially.

In his six-month investigation, Mr. Stein interviewed more than 200 witnesses and concluded in 1984 that there was “no basis” for federal prosecution. He declined to make findings about Meese’s “ethics and the propriety of his conduct,” those questions falling outside the scope of his investigation. Meese went on to serve as attorney general.

Interviewed years later by NPR, legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen described Mr. Stein’s work as a “success story” of independent counsel investigations, which have often been criticized as overly long, overzealous and fruitlessly expensive. “He investigated, wrote a report quickly, and said that there was no grounds for prosecution, and was widely praised for his restraint,” Rosen said, “largely because . . . so few prosecutors actually showed that restraint.”

During the Clinton administration, Mr. Stein found himself on the other side of an independent counsel investigation, and in the highest-profile case of his career, as an attorney for Lewinsky, the White House intern at the center of a scandal that threatened to bring down Clinton’s presidency.

Mr. Stein and Plato Cacheris, another prominent Washington lawyer, joined Lewinsky’s legal team in June 1998 after Lewinsky fired William H. Ginsburg, a family friend and California medical malpractice lawyer who, in the judgment of many observers, hurt her case with his flamboyant media appearances.

The arrival of Mr. Stein, who displayed in his office a mounted bluefish with a sign reading “If I’d kept my big mouth shut, I wouldn’t be here,” represented a conspicuous departure from that style.

His experience as an independent counsel was said to have elevated him in the estimation of Kenneth W. Starr, who served as the independent counsel investigating Clinton.

Mr. Stein advised Starr that he was prepared for a fight — “I have one good trial left in me,” Mr. Stein said he told him, “and I’m going to put it at Monica’s disposal.” Within weeks, Mr. Stein and Cacheris obtained for Lewinsky an immunity deal that allowed her to testify about her relationship with the president without fear of prosecution for perjury over previous statements she had made denying their affair.

“There was nothing to celebrate,” Mr. Stein told the Times after the deal was announced, and as the country was still reeling from revelations of Clinton’s indiscretions. “None of this called for a party. This is a tragedy.”

Jacob Stein — he later added his middle initial, his daughter said — was born in Washington on March 15, 1925. His father was a lawyer, and his mother was a homemaker.

“My father had a good practice, but he hated controversy,” Mr. Stein once told The Post. “He quit before I started. He couldn’t stand people fighting each other.”

After attending D.C. Public Schools, Mr. Stein enrolled at George Washington University, where he received an associate degree in 1945, a bachelor’s degree in 1947 and a bachelor of law degree in 1948.

Mr. Stein’s other major clients included Dwight Chapin, Nixon’s appointments secretary who was convicted of perjury in 1974 for lying to a Watergate grand jury. Later, Mr. Stein represented James S. Brady, the White House press secretary who was grievously wounded during the 1981 assassination attempt on Reagan, in civil lawsuits related to the attack.

He also successfully defended Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) against criminal charges of influence peddling — accusations that came amid a larger Senate Ethics Committee probe into his public and personal life. Packwood resigned from the Senate in 1995 in the face of imminent expulsion over allegations of sexual and official misconduct.

“He’s the kind of lawyer that if you were indicted for murder, found guilty and hanged, you’d still think you had a good defense,” Packwood told The Post in 1998.

Mr. Stein’s wife of nearly six decades, the former Mary Margaret Simeon, died in 2018. Besides his daughter, of Nashville, survivors include a son, Joseph Stein of Washington.

Mr. Stein was a former president of the District of Columbia Bar and taught at Harvard, Georgetown and George Washington law schools. For years, he wrote a column in the publication Washington Lawyer, collecting his musings in books that included “Legal Spectator and More” (1981) and “Eulogy of Lawyers Written by a Lawyer” (2010).

He observed that lawyers are a lot who “must extract a living from the contention of others.” He had once dreamed, he confessed, of being a juggler and delighting audiences by keeping pins impossibly aloft. “I thought that would be a wonderful life,” he told the Times, “to do something to perfection.” He kept it up as a hobby.

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