Former Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland arrives with attorney Reid Weingarten at federal court, Friday, April 11, 2014, in New Haven, Conn. A grand jury on Thursday returned a seven-count indictment alleging Rowland schemed to conceal involvement with congressional campaigns. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill) (Jessica Hill)
When he was arraigned the other day, officially charged with campaign finance law violations, you no doubt recognized John Rowland. Although his hair has grayed, he still looks much like he did when he was a boyish 38 years old and first taking office as Connecticut governor in 1995.
But who was the middle-aged lawyer standing by Rowland in the New Haven federal courthouse, the one exchanging banter with 90-year-old Senior Judge Ellen Bree Burns?
“We are eager to go to trial,” the lawyer said.
“So am I,” Burns said. “I enjoy trials.”
“I think you’ll enjoy this one,” the lawyer said.
Who was this lawyer who confidentally stood on the steps outside the courthouse, predicting victory to a crowd of reporters and photographers, as Rowland quiety exited a side door? “I’m going to make a statement and I’m only going to make it once,” the attorney said. “We fully expect our client to be fully vindicated.”
Perhaps the attorney looked familiar. No doubt you’ve seen him on television at some point, though he’s not from Connecticut, and doesn’t normally practice here. But Reid Weingarten, 64, has been on the national legal scene for decades; the white collar partner at Steptoe & Johnson in Washington, D.C., has represented a virtual who’s-who of public figures accused of running afoul of the law. Along the way he’s earned a reputation for being outspoken and perhaps a touch less than humble.
Maybe you recall him from back in the 1990s, when he represented then-Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, who was accused of accepting gifts from Tyson Foods Inc. the nation’s largest poultry producer. Maybe you saw him being interviewed in 2005 on the old “Charlie Rose Show,” talking about one of his clients, former Worldcom CEO Bernard Ebbers, who was facing charges of fraud and conspiracy. Maybe you remember a few years back that he was added to the defense team for film director Roman Polanski, who was arrested in 2009 and charged on a 31-year-old fugitive warrant with having sex with a 13-year-old girl.
“Wow, that’s quite a client list,” said one prominent Connecticut attorney after looking at Weingarten’s law firm web page, which also notes his representation of former Enron accounting officer Richard Causey, Tyco general counsel Mark Belnick, Monster.com president James Treacy, former U.S. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.
Another Connecticut attorney, Ross Garber, represented the Connecticut governor’s office when Rowland was embroiled in an impeachment inquiry and criminal investigation a decade ago, a scandal that would send ultimately send Rowland to prison for 10 months. In a brief interview, Garber said Weingarten “is very well-respected and highly regarded …. He’s certainly on the short list of any high-profile person” facing a serious allegation.
Like other Connecticut lawyers, Garber was reluctant to discuss the Rowland case or the legal challenges facing Weingarten in defending the former governor. The attorneys did, however, say they didn’t find it unusual that Rowland had gone out of state and hired a man who has been called the “dean of white collar criminal defense.”
Weingarten has “got a fabulous reputation” as a trial lawyer, said David Atkins, a noted litigator at Pullman & Comley.
Weingarten grew up in Newark, N.J., as a “hard-core child of the ’60s,” he told one interviewer, and went to law school with plans to “bring peace to this earth.”
Early in his legal career, he kept some of that do-gooder mentality. After graduating from the Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle, Pa., he began his career in the district attorney’s office in Dauphin County, Pa., which includes the state capital of Harrisburg. From there, he moved to Washington for a job in the Justice Department’s newly formed public integrity section. He met and worked with another young lawyer, Eric Holder, prosecuting ambassadors and other public officials.
“He’s got a manner that I think juries and judges like,” Holder, now the U.S. Attorney General, told Business Week magazine in 2002. “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, who along with Weingarten launched a non-profit foundation to help troubled kids in Washington, D.C., as well as a charter school.
Weingarten left government work to join Steptoe in D.C. He still handled public corruption cases, but on the defense side. He won an acquittal for Espy, charged with receiving illegal gifts from seven companies, and Teamsters union president Ronald Carey, charged with perjury and making false statements to investigators looking into fundraising during Carey’s reelection campaign.
His client list grew quickly. Politicians, chief executives and celebrities. Weingarten once described his white-collar defense practice as “LaGuardia on a Friday night, with hundreds of planes lined up.” With success came a highly confident public persona. A reporter from the National Law Journal, an affiliate of the Law Tribune, once wrote that Weingarten “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.’”
Observers describe Weingarten’s courtroom style as equally straightforward. He tends to portray his clients as well-intentioned people who may have made mistakes, but hardly deserve long prison sentences. Weingarten told the National Law Journal that his courtroom strategy has become harder to carry out because of the complexity of corporate scandals forllowin the Enron case.
“Part of the skill of defense counsel and the prosecutor is you have to be able to tell a story,” he said. “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.”
Weingarten has not won over every jury. In 2005, WorldCom’s Ebbers was convicted of fraud and conspiracy and sentenced to 25 years in prison as a result of false financial reporting at the telecommunications giant, which cost investors an estimated $100 billion.
But he has prevailed more often than not. In 2011, he won a full acquittal for Lauren Stevens, a former associate general counsel for the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, who was charged with obstruction and making false statements in a Food and Drug Administration investigation into the off-label promotion of an anti-depressant medication.
In wrapping up the Stevens case, Litigation Daily, another affiliate of the Law Tribune, noted that “Weingarten convinced Maryland federal district court judge Roger Titus to acquit his client before he even put on a single witness.” In a ruling read from the bench, Titus concluded that the defendant should never have been prosecuted.
“We did not have a bad five minutes in that courtroom,” Weingarten told the Wall Street Journal following the Stevens trial. “If it had been a prize fight, they would have stopped it.”
During their amiable exchange, Judge Burns asked Weingarten if he was admitted to the bar in Connecticut. “I had the privilege of trying a case here before,” Weingarten replied.
That federal case involved a criminal prosecution of five insurance executives from the American International Group and AIG who allegedly engineered a reinsurance transaction that fraudulently boosted AIG’s loss reserves. The four were initially convicted and sentenced to prison terms, but in 2011 had their convictons overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
Weingarten represented General Re Chief Financial Officer Elizabeth Monrad. Among the lawyers for the other defendants was New Haven’s William F. Dow III, who called Weingarten “an excellent attorney” in a brief interview last week. Weingarten did not return calls for comment for this article.
This time around in Connecticut, there’s just one defendant. Rowland is charged with alleged illegal activity in two congressional campaigns. According to the indictment, Rowland devised a scheme to work for the campaign of Mark Greenberg, a Republican running for U.S. House of Representatives, during the 2009 and 2010 election cycle. The indictment alleges Rowland wanted to conceal the fact that he would be paid from the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) and from the public.
The indictment also includes allegations that Rowland tried to hide his work with Lisa Wilson-Foley on her campaign for the Fifth District nomination during the 2011 and 2012 election cycle. Instead of being paid by Wilson-Foley’s campaign, authorities say Rowland received money from a nursing home owned by the candidate’s husband.
Rowland has pleaded not guilty and maintains he did real consulting work for Foley’s nursing home. Jurly selection in his trial is tentatively scheduled to start June 10.
Outside the New Haven federal courthouse on April 11, Weingarten told a throng of media members the allegations related to Greenberg’s campaign were worthless because Rowland never received any money. As for the Wilson-Foley campaign, Weingarten said it was her legal responsibility to file accurate reports with federal elections regulators, not Rowland’s.
“He had no responsibility whatsoever to file anything with the FEC. [Wilson-Foley] has been allowed to plead to a misdemeanor,” Weingarten said. “[Rowland], while working for her husband and doing real work, is facing 37 years of potential prison.”
Weingarten has used similar tactics before, emphasizing what he calls overly severe sentences handed out to people convicted of white collar crimes. To be sure, statements like that have attracted critics who have accused Weingarten of grandstanding. But the commentary seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Weingarten says even the rich and the powerful deserve a vigorous defense.
“I feel like I’m in the French Revolution, defending the nobility against the howling mob,” Weingarten told Business Week. “They want to guillotine these people without any evidence.”•