The Magazine

Lawyer, Heal Thyself

From the April 21, 1997 issue: The curious case of Richard Ben-Veniste.

Apr 21, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 31 • By TOD LINDBERG
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THE WASHINGTON LAWYER is the quintessential Washington type. He has the huge house in Wesley Heights or Potomac; the million-dollar partnership bonuses; the Rolodex with everyone's private number; the squad of young associates who do the grunt work and call him Godfather; the easy intercourse with pols and corporate chieftains seeking free advice or high-priced counsel--and, of course, the ego to go with all of the above. He slips and slides in and out and around government, usually making his reputation through political work he can then sell on the open market.

The Washington lawyer comes in a number of shapes and sizes, from the avuncular Bob Bennett, now representing Bill Clinton in the Paula Jones matter, to the cerebral Ted Olson, everybody's favorite Republican litigator. Perhaps the most interesting iteration is the attack dog--an in-your-face, take-no-prisoners type best represented these days by Richard Ben-Veniste.

A partner in the firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges, Ben-Veniste did a recent tour of public duty as minority special counsel to the now-shuttered Senate Whitewater committee. There he served up enough disdain, contempt, and indignation to fortify the Democratic contention that the whole investigation was an overblown load of partisan hooey. By any measure, he did a good job. It was hardly his first star turn. Ben-Veniste made his reputation in his early thirties as a prosecutor working for Archibald Cox and Leon Jaworski on Watergate. In the course of the legal wrangling over Richard Nixon's secret tape recordings, Ben-Veniste often turned up on the front pages and the evening news.

After such a prominent role in what was one of the titanic legal battles of American history, the rest of a legal career might seem something of a letdown. But Ben-Veniste has never been shy about stepping into the lights, and he may be getting ready for another goround. His latest high-profile client is Truman Arnold, who was the chief money man at the Democratic National Committee for a critical five-month period in 1995 when the DNC was deeply in debt and reeling from the historic 1994 defeat at the polls. Arnold is also one of the select group of people who put Webster Hubbell on the payroll in 1994 between Hubbell's resignation as the Clintons' man at the Justice Department and his subsequent guilty plea to charges that he had defrauded clients and law partners. Ben-Veniste and his client thus find themselves at the red-hot center--the point where the Whitewater investigation of independent counsel Kenneth Starr and the unfolding Democratic fund-raising scandal are converging.

Ben-Veniste's causes from Watergate onward have been overwhelmingly liberal and Democratic. Indeed, he folded his own private practice to join Weil, Gotshal in 1990 because he was frustrated that the small size of his operation had kept him from taking on a client he really wanted to represent: Jim Wright, the Texas Democrat whose pocket-lining corruption in office cost him his House speakership and political career.

In the lawyering trade, it's considered bad form to judge an attorney by his clients. It's the quality of the representation that counts. By reputation, Ben-Veniste is nothing if not vigorous in that regard--tough and willfully abrasive, a pitiless interrogator, a bold strategist. But certain rules apply even to Washington lawyers. Some of those rules are enshrined in law, some by the canons of the profession, some by convention. And the same quality of representation that has elevated Ben-Veniste into the Washington pantheon--one of the Top 50 lawyers in town, in Washingtonian's reckoning--has also left a distasteful trail of ethical flotsam stirred up in the wake of his confrontational style. There are questions about the propriety of his conduct toward those who come up against him--and even toward those on his side. And his representation of Arnold raises questions about his compliance with a tough D.C. bar rule regulating government and private employment.

Ben-Veniste would not be interviewed for this article. In a letter, he said he had reached "the conclusion that the article will reflect a preconceived bottom line, regurgitating the sore-loser whining that certain former (and some present) participants in the Whitewater feeding frenzy have put forward from time to time." The rhetoric is vintage Ben-Veniste. Despite his talk of " regurgitation," however, Ben-Veniste's own conduct has gone remarkably unscrutinized--particularly given his own unquestioned ability and willingness to scrutinize his political opponents.