Former District of Columbia Council­member Michael Brown was by no means the first councilmember to be charged with a crime, but he had the unfortunate distinction of being caught on camera. After Brown was charged in June with taking bribes, the U.S. attorney's office in Washington released photos taken by undercover federal agents of Brown accepting neatly rolled wads of illicit cash.
Brown was the third elected D.C. official in the past 1 1/2 years to plead guilty to criminal misconduct. He followed the footsteps of former councilmembers Kwame Brown — convicted of bank fraud and a campaign finance law violation — and Harry Thomas Jr., serving three years in jail for stealing more than $353,000 in public funds. The three ex-politicos had something else in common besides a criminal conviction: big-name lawyers at their side.
The subjects of recent political scandals in D.C. have hired lawyers from the upper echelons of the white-collar defense bar. In Brown's case, Steptoe & Johnson LLP's Reid Weingarten and Brian Heberlig. How did Brown land such top talent? Family ties. "I knew Michael back in the day," said Weingarten, who represented Brown's father, former U.S. Commerce Secre­tary Ron Brown, during a series of investigations during the 1990s.
For others, it was a cold call. Frederick Cooke Jr. of Rubin, Winston, Diercks, Harris & Cooke, who counts Thomas and Kwame Brown among his former clients, didn't set out to create a niche representing scandal-plagued local officials. That role evolved from his success in other cases over the years, he said (former D.C. mayor and sitting Councilmember Marion Barry is a long-time client).
As U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen Jr. shows no signs of slowing down in his pursuit of corruption cases, even more work could be in the pipeline for Washington's defense bar.
Reid Weingarten and Brian Heberlig
Steptoe & Johnson LLP
Client: Michael Brown
Weingarten, through his friendship with Ron Brown and his wife, has known the younger Brown for years, but this was the first time he represented him. Weingarten's past clients include former WorldCom Inc. chief executive officer Bernard Ebbers. Heberlig leads the firm's white-collar defense practice group.
When Brown knew he faced trouble, he called Weingarten. (He didn't respond to messages about his fee arrangement with Brown.) Brown is scheduled for sentencing on October 3. Weingarten said he's "confident that there'll be more chapters in Michael's life and they'll be happy ones."
Brendan Sullivan Jr.
Williams & Connolly
Client: Jeffrey Thompson
Thompson, a prominent local businessman and Gray campaign contributor, is the subject of a grand jury investigation into the 2010 mayoral campaign. He hasn't been charged with a crime, but filings in other cases connected with Machen's probe indicated he's under investigation for orchestrating an illegal shadow campaign.
Sullivan, whose former clients include the late U.S. Senator Ted Stevens and Walter Forbes, declined to comment. Sullivan most recently went to battle for Thompson to restrict the government's ability to review tens of millions of pages of documents seized during raids on his home and office. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit dismissed his appeal of an order rejecting his challenge to the government's review plan.
Frederick Cooke Jr.
Rubin, Winston, Diercks, Harris & Cooke
Clients: Kwame Brown; Harry Thomas Jr. (with Venable’s Karl Racine and Seth Rosenthal); Eugenia Harris (with Brown Rudnick’s Mark Tuohey III); Thomas Gore; and D.C. Councilmember Marion Barry (D-Ward 8)
This former D.C. corporation counsel (today known as the D.C. attorney general) is arguably the dean of the white-collar bar when it comes to local scandals. He's long served as Barry's personal attorney and more recently picked up two of Barry's former colleagues, Kwame Brown and Harry Thomas Jr., as clients. Cooke said he had known Brown's and Thomas' fathers through the local political scene and came to know the sons as their careers progressed.
Cooke said he'd done some work on civil matters for Brown before the criminal case, and was tapped by Thomas when the D.C. attorney general's office first started looking into his affairs. Cooke also represented Gore and Harris, who pleaded guilty to campaign finance law violations related to the 2010 campaign. Harris was a long-time acquaintance, Cooke said, but he didn't know Gore until he got the call asking to represent him.
"I really didn't seek this…role out — it was something that evolved because I was fortunate enough to represent some people successfully and then other people who had similar problems thought I could be helpful," said Cooke, who declined to discuss fee arrangements. "I consider myself very fortunate to have had some of the success I've had."
William Taylor III
Client: D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham (D-Ward 1)
As Graham faced an investigation last year into his handling of a contracting matter, he brought Taylor on board. Taylor's past clients included former International Monetary Fund managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn and a U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor in the Ted Stevens misconduct inquiry.
In February, the D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability said it wouldn't proceed with an investigation of Graham. Still, the board found evidence of likely violations of the D.C. Code of Conduct. Graham lost a subsequent challenge.
Graham, working with Taylor for the first time, called him "top notch." Graham said Taylor's minimal interaction with the D.C. government meant he brought a "fresh legal point of view." Taylor declined to comment about how he connected with Graham and the fee arrangement.
Client: Mayor Vincent Gray (D)
Machen has made no secret of his investigation into Gray's 2010 campaign, and has already netted guilty pleas for campaign finance violations and other crimes. Gray hasn't been charged with any wrongdoing, but he hired Bennett — whose former clients include President Bill Clinton — in 2011 as private counsel as Machen's investigation progressed.
Bennett said this was the first time he had represented Gray, but had known the mayor for at least a half-dozen years. When Bennett was a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, Bennett worked with Gray's daughter — then an associate at the firm — and he and his wife held a fundraiser for Gray's mayoral campaign. "I like him very much personally and I talk to him frequently," said Bennett, who declined to discuss his fee arrangement with the mayor.
Contact Zoe Tillman at email@example.com.