ProPublica late Tuesday introduced a new wrinkle to the legal and political controversies surrounding President Donald Trump: Does the president’s personal lawyer have a history of excessive drinking that could undermine his ability to represent his client effectively?
The ProPublica story, by Justin Elliott and Jesse Eisinger, reports that Marc Kasowitz sought treatment for alcohol abuse at a rehabilitation facility in Florida almost two years ago. It also describes an account of Kasowitz “dirty dancing” with a Palm West Side restaurant hostess at the firm’s holiday party in 2013, and receiving two black eyes at a restaurant the same night the woman assaulted another woman.
The story suggests that Kasowitz’s history could make it difficult for him to gain a security clearance in connection with his work for Trump. But a representative for Kasowitz responded on Wednesday with several flat denials.
“Marc Kasowitz has not struggled with alcoholism,” spokesman Michael Sitrick wrote in an email. “He has not come into the office intoxicated, attorneys have not had to go across the street to the restaurant during the workday to consult Kasowitz on work matters, as he held court, drinking and eating, as the story reports our responding, he never had a drink during the day at the Palm outside of lunch and dinner and never handled firm business while at the restaurant.”
He added that “much of what they reported is false and defamatory.”
Besides the political drama amid probes into the Trump campaign’s Russia ties, the report may have special resonance in the legal industry. Other powerful lawyers have struggled publicly with alcohol or drug use, and substance abuse is considered rampant at all levels of the profession—often described along with suicide and depression as an epidemic among attorneys.
“‘Kasowitz Benson had a hard-drinking culture that its leaders epitomized,” the ProPublica report asserts. “‘It’s like a time warp,’ said one former employee, citing the firm’s ‘macho, scotch-drinking, fist-fighting’ ethos. Multiple former attorneys said they saw Kasowitz under the influence at the office, an accusation Kasowitz denies.”
The story cites Hogan Lovells partner Robert Bennett and other experts stating that a person with a recent history of alcohol abuse and evidence of poor judgment may not be able to get a security clearance if he sought one. A New York Times story published around the same time reported that President Donald Trump has grown frustrated with Kasowitz, and that the lawyer may resign.
A Kasowitz spokesman told ProPublica that Kasowitz doesn’t need a security clearance to represent the president but would apply for clearance if necessary. He also said Kasowitz is able to drink in moderation without problems.
Alcohol abuse disproportionately affects lawyers. In a 2016 study, 36 percent of practicing attorneys said they drank excessively, and one-fifth of lawyers disclosed they had an alcohol abuse problem, according to a Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation study. The problem has been acknowledged by everyone from self-help authors and memoirists who’ve written about the journey from Big Law through recovery, to the District of Columbia Bar, which recently profiled lawyers who struggled with addiction.
An alcohol problem can be compounded if a firm and its culture enables it. It was common a decade or more ago for firms to host regular cocktail hours and alcohol-sopped multi-hour lunches. Rainmakers and management-level partners established that culture of drinking.
The practices continue in some parts of Big Law, though now lawyers more frequently eat lunch at their desks. Firms also are more aware of the scope of the problem in the industry and can intervene.
Still, “The higher up the alcoholic partner is in terms of book of business, the more challenging it is to deal with,” said Stuart Pape, the former managing partner of Patton Boggs, which in its heyday gained a reputation in Washington for Bacchanalia. “At many firms, the bigger the book, the bigger a horse’s ass you can be.”
Often, the question of a lawyer’s behavior and its appropriateness is left for clients to address. The legal profession is one of the strictest in the U.S., because of self-regulation enforced by the bar. Attorneys must meet ethical codes to gain and maintain their licenses, and state courts, which oversee licensing, publicly disclose when they discipline attorneys about their practices. The consequence of inappropriate action can be as devastating as a loss of license to practice law.
About a month ago, Kasowitz earned two ethics complaints against him, with the New York and D.C. bars. The complaints, which don’t include any allegations related to alcohol or inappropriate personal conduct, allege Kasowitz gave improper advice when he reportedly told White House staffers they didn’t need to seek their own lawyers.
Kasowitz has no public disciplinary history as a lawyer, according to the New York bar. Three other lawyers who work for Trump on his criminal defense—Michael Bowe, who also is at Kasowitz’s namesake firm, Jay Sekulow and John Dowd—have no professional disciplinary records against them in New York or D.C.
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Katelyn Polantz is based in Washington, D.C., and writes about government and the business of law. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @kpolantz.