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WASHINGTON — Everyone says former WorldCom chief executive Bernard Ebbers doesn’t have a chance of winning his trial for allegedly directing the largest accounting fraud in U.S. corporate history. But his lawyer, Reid Weingarten, says, “I think I have a shot. I really do.” The blue-jean clad, greying but boyish, Steptoe & Johnson partner says it with a gleam in his eye. Says it with confidence, not braggadocio. And you begin to wonder: What is he going to do? Or, maybe you begin to believe, just like the juries believed in the trials of former Tyco General Counsel Mark Belnick, former Teamsters president Ron Carey, former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy and others. Those trial outcomes helped to propel Weingarten onto the rich and rarefied list of the top five white-collar criminal defense lawyers in the country, or, contends his best friend, former Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder of Washington’s Covington & Burling, the premier white-collar trial defense attorney in the nation. Weingarten is not the stereotypical white-shoe, big-firm lawyer. He walks like a boxer eager to get into the ring. He talks like, well, steak and beer. He believes “my own bullshit.” He chafes at young prosecutors who think “their poop doesn’t stink.” And he hones in on a complex, document-ladened corporate scandal with the intensity and precision of a laser beam and the commitment of an Olympic marathoner. Belnick, acquitted July 15 of charges of stealing millions of dollars in unauthorized bonuses and loans, said two words describe Weingarten: “total commitment.” ‘Above 100%’ “When Reid Weingarten is preparing a case, and I’ve litigated for nearly 30 years myself, I have never seen a lawyer more totally committed to the task at hand,” he explained. “If there is such a thing as going above 100%, he goes above 100% when that commitment requires him to prepare for cross-examination or direct examination. “He not only absorbs facts like a sponge quickly, but he understands where they fit in a mosaic just as quickly.” Belnick recalled that after Weingarten gave “one of the most brilliant opening arguments I have ever heard in a courtroom,” Belnick walked back to his wife, who was at trial every day, and she said, “I have no hesitation that this man has our lives in his hands.” And after the precision directs and the cross-dissections are done, Weingarten, according to associates and opponents, generally walks away from trial well-liked by judges and prosecutors. Today, his client list reads like a who’s who of alleged corporate wrongdoing: WorldCom, Tyco, Rite Aid, Enron, Archer Daniels Midland, Drexel, Salomon Brothers and on and on. But what does he really love to do? Public corruption cases. “The corporate stuff I’m doing is post-Enron,” said Weingarten. “I didn’t know what a compensation committee was. I couldn’t tell the difference between a 10-K and a 10-Q. I know now. Before that, I had a claim to fame in public corruption. I like it better.” The corporate cases, he explained, particularly Enron, are “so mind-numbingly complex.” In these cases, he said, lawyers simply can’t rely on the jury to receive the evidence from the documents and witnesses, put it together and come out with the right result. “Part of the skill of defense counsel and the prosecutor is you have to be able to tell a story. When the facts are as complex as the facts in these corporate cases, if that story is not told to the fact-finder, that lawyer is not going to win.” Born in Newark, N.J., Weingarten, 54, a graduate of then-independent Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle, Pa., launched his legal career in the Dauphin County, Pa., district attorney’s office. When he did his first jury trial, he recalled, “There was almost a palpable feeling as I did it that I knew this was who I was.” From there, Weingarten moved to Washington for a job in the Justice Department’s newly formed public integrity section. At DOJ, he met and worked with another young lawyer, Eric Holder, prosecuting ambassadors and other public officials. Many people say Weingarten is a good lawyer, Holder said, “But I have worked cases with him and when I say it, it is true. He’s got a manner that I think juries and judges like. Although he works very hard at preparing for trial, he makes it seem effortless in trial. There is an irreverent side of him that I think juries like. “He will be as thorough as any lawyer in the presentation of a case and yet still come off in court as a guy full of personality and make the case seem interesting as opposed to those people who are sort of grinders,” added Holder. He and Weingarten, a single father of a 19-year-old son, often speak of opening an office some day with a few associates and taking on important cause cases. “When we retire, when we’re not too old, in our late 50s and early 60s, after our kids are out of college, open an office and attack issues, juvenile justice, free speech, cases where government is overreaching. We’re kids of the Sixties.” But the two friends did start the See Forever Foundation, which grew out of their tutoring and mentoring work with juveniles at the Oak Hill detention facility in Maryland. Their goal was to go after the one-third of juveniles who could be “saved” and intensively prepare them for college. Extremely well-funded, it has grown into a successful Washington charter school. From DOJ, Weingarten joined Steptoe in D.C. He still handled public corruption cases, but on the defense side, winning acquittals for Espy, charged with receiving illegal gifts from seven companies, and Carey, charged with perjury and making false statements. He was hired by the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown three months before he died in a plane crash. He represented Charlie Trie and others accused of making illegal political contributions in a Democratic fund-raising scandal. And he has taken on special assignments throughout the years: special counsel to a Senate committee in the 1992 “October Surprise” investigation and an associate independent counsel in the Iran-Contra investigation. “Obviously, Enron dramatically changed the world on Wall Street and in corporate America,” said Weingarten. “That’s my life now.” Simplifying the story During the past three decades, he said, two events have had a major impact on white-collar criminal defense: the federal sentencing guidelines and the decentralization of DOJ’s criminal prosecutorial power from Washington to the field. Before decentralization, he explained, he and other defense lawyers could always go to Justice for review of decisions made by line prosecutors. “For me, if I have a case out in the field and let’s say I’m dealing with a 31-year-old prosecutor who’s got no federal experience, who just came out of the DA’s office and he’s politically ambitious, where do I go for a review if he’s totally over his head?” asked Weingarten. “The issue is not anywhere in the Justice Department. I don’t have any sense that there’s real veto power here.” And of the guidelines, he said: “There’s this feeling that 12 or 14 years is not enough for a white-collar offender, but you have to give them 30 years. It’s so awful.” If the prosecution’s view of the sentencing guidelines prevails in Ebbers’ case, and if he is convicted, added Weingarten, the amount of loss imputed to Ebbers is the dollar amount lost by shareholders. “Under the guidelines, that’s life in prison. He dies in prison,” said Weingarten of his 63-year-old client. “Of course it’s not attributable to his conduct. It’s attributable to what happens to the stock because Ebbers was perhaps part of a process that led to the fall of the stock. It’s astonishing.” Weingarten accuses prosecutors and politicians of simplifying the post-Enron cases in almost a “cartoonish way.” He said it’s easier to find one villain and put fault at his feet than to look objectively and carefully at what was happening. “Everyone says how could it possibly be that WorldCom bought MCI? The minnow swallowed the whale,” said Weingarten. “Well, Ebbers didn’t do that on his own. MCI had to agree to do it. The reason it happened was for a period of time everybody made money out of it. You’re talking about a period of time with complex forces at play, but to try to lay it all on the shoulders of one ‘villain’ is preposterous. It’s particularly upsetting when: a) the person is facing life in prison and b) I represent him. “There were rules in place that allowed a lot of these abuses. A lot of these business plans look preposterous with hindsight but they didn’t look preposterous in real time. Now I’m practicing my closing argument here, but I happen to believe it.” As in the Belnick case, Weingarten said, a fair and open-minded jury will not find criminal intent. Belnick was an “extraordinarily difficult case” because Tyco and its CEO had generated so much bad press in New York, said Ted Wells of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, who was co-counsel with Weingarten in the Espy trial. “To win acquittal of a former Tyco executive in New York City is amazing and deserves tremendous credit,” said Wells. Going to trial in the current environment is particularly risky in these cases, added Wells, because the reaction of most of the public today “is that these people have hurt the public in general, hurt their 401(K) pensions, hurt their stock portfolios. There’s a degree of anger that did not exist in the 1990s.” Weingarten suffered one major defeat recently-the conviction of Rite Aid Corp. General Counsel Franklin Brown, whose signed plea agreement broke down. Weingarten gives much credit for his recent successes, however, to his team at Steptoe: his “main guy,” partner Mark Hulkower, Erik Kitchen, Bill Hassler and Brian Heberlig. Of Weingarten and Hulkower, Belnick said, “You don’t fund duos like that very frequently.” Although he loved every minute of being a prosecutor, Weingarten said, he would never go back, and it’s not because of the money. “There’s something, I don’t know if it’s romantic or what, about going up against the feds, where you’re the only thing protecting this individual,” he explained, adding with a chuckle, “Oftentimes I can’t wait to get rid of the individual and get to the next case. But taking on the feds and being the only thing between this guy and prison is a feeling of enormous responsibility. I like it.” Coyle’s e-mail address is [email protected].

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