Nearly a year before news organizations began reporting about Weinstein’s alleged predatory behavior with women, plaintiffs lawyer Thomas Ajamie began to hear about similar claims involving the movie mogul, he told The American Lawyer in an extensive interview. Ajamie heard those allegations in the wake of his investigation about Weinstein’s dealings with The Foundation for AIDS Research, a New York-based nonprofit that uses the acronym amfAR.
Ajamie’s account, which is corroborated in part by emails and a letter sent by another prominent lawyer representing four dissenting board members at amfAR to the New York State Attorney General’s office, reveals how some legal heavy-hitters sought to stop the Houston-based trial lawyer from asking questions about Weinstein.
The amfAR-related battles between Ajamie and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher partner Orin Snyder in New York include an eyebrow-raising cameo by Lisa Bloom, a well-known women’s rights advocate and litigator who recently stepped aside as Weinstein’s so-called feminist adviser.
Bloom, who spoke with The American Lawyer earlier this month, declined to comment for this story. Famous fashion designer Kenneth Cole, chairman of amfAR’s board and the brother-in-law of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, did not return a request for an interview. A spokesman did provide a lengthy statement on Cole’s behalf to The American Lawyer claiming that the clothing kingpin did nothing wrong.
Snyder, who was tapped by amfAR’s board to review Ajamie’s work looking into Weinstein’s ties to the organization, agreed to multiple interviews for this story. Snyder objected to what he views as the conflation of the tabloid-selling Weinstein sex scandal stories with previous concerns that he raised about Ajamie’s own actions after the Texas litigator completed his assignment for the charity’s board.
“[I]t is shameful that a handful of people are seeking to exploit the Harvey Weinstein scandal in an effort to smear amfAR, harming its ability to fulfill its lifesaving mission,” Snyder said in a written statement to The American Lawyer.
Boies Schiller Flexner chairman David Boies, a longtime legal adviser to Weinstein, spoke at length for this story. He confirmed that the well-known film producer was concerned about Ajamie’s activities, but did not entirely agree with either Ajamie or Snyder about their characterizations of the events that had both lawyer at loggerheads.
An Internal Probe and Dueling Lawyers
In March 2016, Ajamie entered Weinstein’s world when amfAR trustees tapped him to conduct an investigation into transactions between the nonprofit and Weinstein. The probe involved $600,000 raised at a May 2015 auction in Cannes on the French Riviera from a pair of fundraising packages arranged by Weinstein. The Financial Times broke the news of the amfAR matter in late September, two weeks before The New York Times came out with the first in a series of stories detailing decades of alleged misconduct by Weinstein.
The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe and NBC News had extensive looks this week into the complicated series of transactions between amfAR and Weinstein, who has long championed the nonprofit’s cause in raising millions for AIDS research. The organization also made headlines this week after late night comic James Corden apologized for jokes he made about Weinstein and his alleged victims while hosting an amfAR gala in Los Angeles.
This story will focus on the actions of various lawyers caught up in the amfAR affair, which began in 2015 when Weinstein insisted that the $600,000 raised from the Cannes auction go to the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based American Repertory Theatre (ART), a nonprofit at Harvard University. Ajamie, a former Baker Botts partner who left the Am Law 100 firm two decades ago to set up his own shop, was asked by amfAR to investigate why Weinstein had urgently insisted that it split the proceeds from the Cannes auction with ART by June 1, 2015.
Ajamie, profiled by The American Lawyer in 2010 for his work winning a $112 million RICO claim on behalf of security company ADT Corp., has several notable cases and assignments on his resume. Six months after being hired by amfAR to look into the ART matter, Ajamie presented his findings in a nine-page letter with attached exhibits on Sept. 20, 2016. Weinstein had refused to answer his questions about the 2015 transactions, Ajamie wrote.
“We must infer from Mr. Weinstein’s stonewalling that the transaction was indeed illegitimate in some way,” added Ajamie, who also singled out unfavorably the actions of Cole, head of amfAR’s board. “Mr. Cole never asked Mr. Weinstein why the transaction had to be done this way or what the purpose of the transaction was. He stated in an interview that he thought it was better not to ask questions. He also stated that, ‘We often give into Harvey but we haven’t comprised our integrity.’”
Ajamie, who said the charity’s board agreed to reimburse him for roughly $40,000 in expenses incurred as part of his inquiry, encouraged amfAR’s board to continue its investigation of Weinstein.
A few weeks after Ajamie issued his report, the actress Rose McGowan tweeted on Oct. 12, 2016, about an anonymous film producer whom she alleged raped her. (McGowan confirmed last week that the unnamed individual she was tweeting about is Weinstein, who the Times reported reached a $100,000 settlement with her in 1997.) While compiling his report for amfAR’s board, Ajamie said he started hearing allegations about Weinstein’s conduct with various women, although the lawyer acknowledged to The American Lawyer that investigating such claims was not part of his mandate.
“I’m not investigating [sexual assault],” Ajamie recalled in an interview. “People are calling me.”
By mid-October 2016, after he had filed his report for amfAR and was no longer retained by the charity, Ajamie spoke with Barry Avrich, a filmmaker who in 2010, long before the allegations about Weinstein and women surfaced publicly, made a documentary about the film producer. Avrich followed up that film with a book called “Moguls, Monsters and Madmen: An Uncensored Life in Show Business.”
According to an excerpt of that book last year by The Hollywood Reporter, Avrich alleged that Weinstein attempted to assert control—and ultimately succeeded, in part—over his documentary, his edits and the film’s limited release. Despite their tense history, Avrich and Weinstein kept in touch, although Avrich wrote that when he asked Weinstein for permission to show one of his movies at a 2015 film festival, the movie mogul said he would “need a favor in return.”
Ajamie said that he cannot remember if he called Avrich or vice versa. The Huffington Post reported this week that Ajamie emailed Avrich. Either way, when Ajamie and Avrich spoke, the filmmaker already knew that Ajamie had investigated Weinstein’s amfAR transactions, Ajamie told The American Lawyer. Ajamie added he was surprised that Avrich knew, and he therefore became intentionally vague about which client he was calling about. Ajamie said that he chose not to disabuse Avrich of his impression that he continued to represent amfAR at that point, even though he was no longer officially advising the charity.
Ajamie told The American Lawyer that he asked Avrich if he would be willing to discuss any allegations made by women against Weinstein. Avrich told Ajamie he was “receptive” to the idea, but ultimately never called him back, Ajamie recalled.
Avrich, who is currently working on a Holocaust documentary with The Weinstein Co., did not return a request for comment as to whether he called Weinstein to inform him about the contents of his phone call with Ajamie. But on Oct. 14, 2016, one day after Ajamie and Avrich connected, Ajamie said he received a voicemail message from David Boies.
Ajamie said he didn’t return Boies’ call because he had already submitted his report to amfAR and wasn’t expected to continue his investigation. Had Boies called Ajamie before he submitted his amfAR report, the Houston lawyer said he would have returned the call as a possible avenue to reach Weinstein for his investigation.
Boies recalled the circumstances surrounding his call to Ajamie somewhat differently.
“I asked him to talk to me about what he wanted—and Ajamie refused to do that,” said Boies, whose has long handled work for various Weinstein-related entities.
CNN reported this week that Boies appeared to have stepped back from his work on behalf of Weinstein. In an Oct. 18 email to The American Lawyer, Boies said that he couldn’t comment as to the nature of his representation, “except to refer you to public reports.”
Gibson Dunn Joins the Fray
In October 2016, the amfAR board hired Gibson Dunn’s Orin Snyder to advise it on Ajamie’s investigation and other governance issues. For its work, Snyder said his firm was ultimately paid $450,000, about a 50 percent discount from Gibson Dunn’s usual rates for such matters.
“Gibson Dunn agreed on its own initiative to offer its services on a partial pro bono basis,” Snyder said. “We thought that was an appropriate gesture given the charitable nature of the organization’s mission.”
A former federal prosecutor, Snyder has a stable of high-profile clients, including well-known nonprofits like The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts Inc.; Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation; Intrepid Museum Foundation Inc., Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts Inc.; and the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation Inc. Snyder is also no stranger to the New York Attorney General’s office (NYAG), having served on Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s transition team and advocated before the regulator on behalf of clients like Facebook Inc., the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. and Warner Music Group Corp.
But by January 2017, four dissenting amfAR board members would express concerns about the exact nature of Gibson Dunn’s role for the nonprofit. The four individuals hired John Moscow, a white-collar litigation partner at Baker & Hostetler in New York, to represent them. On April 12, Moscow wrote to Schneiderman’s office, attached a timeline of relevant events and asked the state agency to “use the powers of your office to correct the situation.”
Moscow’s letter to Schneiderman’s office states that at an amfAR board meeting on Oct. 17, 2016, amfAR board chairman Cole told its members that he had received a call from Weinstein. Cole reported to the board that Weinstein had told him that Ajamie had sent him a letter detailing allegations against the film producer, according to Moscow’s letter. Ajamie said he never sent a letter to Weinstein and Moscow wrote that no such missive from Ajamie was ever found.
At the same board meeting, Cole proposed that amfAR hire Gibson Dunn’s Snyder to review Ajamie’s work and advise the charity on governance issues, according to Moscow’s timeline. Prior to that meeting, Weinstein telephoned an unidentified amfAR board member in an attempt to make sure that the charity retained Gibson Dunn, according to Moscow’s timeline and another board member who declined to be named.
In Moscow’s letter to Schneiderman’s office, he wrote that Gibson Dunn had previously represented Weinstein. But Snyder said that his firm only briefly advised Weinstein in an unrelated matter, long before amfAR became his client. Snyder also said he disclosed that previous engagement to Donald Capoccia, an amfAR board member, before he was hired by the charity. Snyder said his own introduction to Weinstein came in 2008 when he represented media giant NBCUniversal in litigation against The Weinstein Co. over its right of refusal to broadcast hit cable reality show “Project Runway.”
Snyder also noted that in Gibson Dunn’s engagement letter with amfAR, dated Oct. 26, 2016, the firm included what he said is its standard waiver of prospective client conflicts: “You are retaining us to provide legal services … in connection with an internal investigation and governance matters.”
However, in a subsequent Feb. 7, 2017, email that Snyder sent to Ajamie, the Gibson Dunn litigator linked amfAR’s retention of his firm directly to a complaint lodged by Weinstein.
“[I]n October 2016, amfAR received a complaint from Mr. Weinstein and his counsel indicating that you, representing amfAR, were still ‘investigating’ Mr. Weinstein and had recently contacted and made statements to third parties about Mr. Weinstein’s personal life,” Snyder wrote in the email, which was obtained by The American Lawyer. “As a result of Mr. Weinstein’s complaint, the Board, among other things, retained Gibson Dunn to determine whether you continued to communicate with third parties and ‘investigate’ Mr. Weinstein after your report, without amfAR’s authorization.”
Boies, who recently spoke with The American Lawyer about his work on behalf of Weinstein, confirmed in that interview that Ajamie’s inquiries had aggrieved his client.
“Ajamie was going around asking people whether they knew of anything that Harvey had done wrong—Harvey didn’t like that,” Boies said. “I know that the board had told him to stop and I know that he didn’t stop. You have a rogue lawyer who is not following [the board’s] instruction.”
Boies stressed that Weinstein’s concerns were not necessarily about keeping secret any allegations of sexual indiscretions. Instead, Weinstein wanted to counter the false notion that he had somehow “profited personally at the expense of amfAR,” Boies recalled.
For his part, Ajamie defended his actions after issuing his report to amfAR. The charity had ended its relationship with him in September 2016. He was not engaged in an investigation of Weinstein, but rather “fielding calls about the sex stuff,” Ajamie said in an interview.
“I’m trying to find a place to channel it,” added Ajamie about his thoughts at the time. “I’m trying to find a lawyer I can toss it to.”
Looking for an Ally
Ajamie said he decided he could not represent clients with claims against Weinstein because of his work for amfAR. So he contacted Bloom—a fellow plaintiffs lawyer likely to be interested in such advocacy, based on her previous representations. Bloom, along with her mother Gloria Allred, is known for representing women making sexual harassment claims against powerful men. At the time, Ajamie was unaware of any relationship Bloom had with Weinstein, he said. That was until Oct. 5, when the Times quoted Bloom as defending Weinstein in its story.
On Oct. 26, 2016, Ajamie met Bloom for lunch at the Westside Tavern in Los Angeles. During that meeting, he told Bloom about allegations he heard about Weinstein with certain women. She responded with questions, Ajamie said. Bloom declined, however, to commit to taking on prospective clients who wanted to pursue related claims, Ajamie said. As a result, Ajamie curtailed his discussions about the allegations.
“I got a weird feeling,” he recalled.
Bloom declined to answer questions about Ajamie or amfAR for this story. But she may have already been representing Weinstein at the time of the Westside Tavern meeting or shortly thereafter, recalled Boies and what Bloom said to The American Lawyer in prior interviews about the genesis of her role representing Weinstein.
In a follow-up call after their lunch, Bloom told Ajamie that she had a conflict and couldn’t represent women making allegations against Weinstein, Ajamie recalled. He said he didn’t inquire further. Ajamie assumed that another plaintiffs’ lawyer would have an interest.
He liked Bloom though, and thought they might pursue other litigation together, perhaps related to representing women bringing sex claims against President Donald Trump, he said. Ajamie said he invited Bloom to stay with him at his rented condo in Park City, Utah, during the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017.
Bloom agreed and stayed with him during Sundance, Ajamie said. She asked him to join her at a party hosted by Weinstein and the rapper Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, Ajamie recalled. Ajamie drove Bloom to that party but declined to attend, uncomfortable with the possibility of bumping into the subject of his prior investigation in a social setting, he said.
“I didn’t think it was appropriate, to attend his party, drink his wine and eat his food when he had been the subject of my investigation,” Ajamie said about Weinstein.
When Bloom returned from the party, Ajamie recalled, she expressed excitement about the compliments Weinstein gave her book on the Trayvon Martin case, “Suspicion Nation: The Inside Story of the Trayvon Martin Injustice and Why We Continue to Repeat It.”
The next day Ajamie reluctantly agreed to accompany Bloom to a breakfast meeting with Weinstein at the film producer’s hotel suite, he said. Asked why he let Weinstein host him then and not the night before, Ajamie said a breakfast meeting—with no alcohol—seemed to him a more appropriate setting.
Over bagels and cream cheese, Ajamie said that he and Weinstein discussed—while Bloom mostly listened—the $600,000 amfAR transaction and women’s sexual assault allegations against Weinstein and other leading figures in Hollywood.
Weinstein specifically mentioned McGowan and noted that she had made accusations against other well-known men in the film industry, Ajamie said.
“‘Women are making all sorts of allegations,’” Ajamie recalled Weinstein telling him during the breakfast meeting. Ajamie said the movie mogul alternated between pleading and aggressive tones. As Ajamie tried to exit Weinstein’s suite, the latter proposed that he sign a nondisclosure agreement (NDA), presumably barring Ajamie from talking to others—such as reporters—about all that had just been said, Ajamie recalled.
In exchange, Ajamie alleges that Weinstein would agree not to sue him and also sign an agreement not to publicly disparage the Houston lawyer. Ajamie said he refused Weinstein’s proposal.
Boies confirmed that Weinstein wanted Ajamie to sign an agreement earlier this year.
“I did come to know that Harvey asked for a nondisclosure,” Boies said. “I think it was a mutual non-disparagement agreement.”
Drawing the Battle Lines
After Sundance, at an amfAR board meeting on Jan. 31, 2017, Gibson Dunn’s Snyder presented the findings of his inquiry into Ajamie’s investigation and the $600,000 in 2015 transactions involving the nonprofit, ART and Weinstein. Unlike Ajamie, Snyder did not draft a written report for the board.
According to a timeline provided to Schneiderman’s office by Baker & Hostetler’s Moscow, who attended the Jan. 31 amfAR board meeting as counsel to the four dissenting board members, most board members participated in the meeting by phone.
As a result, two others who attended the meeting said that their colleagues could not see a PowerPoint presentation prepared by Snyder. Moscow’s timeline states that the Gibson Dunn partner told amfAR board members that the Weinstein transactions from 2015 involved “a purely charitable contribution without consideration.”
But prior to that meeting, Moscow’s timeline claims that Snyder confirmed for amfAR board members that he had a copy of a contract between Weinstein and ART stating that Weinstein’s $600,000 donation was part of a commercial obligation he had for a pre-Broadway production of “Finding Neverland,” a musical produced by Weinstein.
In an email to The American Lawyer, Snyder agreed that he told members of amfAR’s audit committee that he had copies of agreements between The Weinstein Co. and ART, but he identified the contribution to ART as being charitable, not commercial.
“I explained that the $600,000 was a ‘charitable contribution’ made to ART pursuant to [a]greements between ART and TWC concerning ART’s developmental production of Finding Neverland,” Snyder wrote.
During most of the Jan. 31 amfAR board meeting, Snyder focused on Ajamie and his conduct as it related to Weinstein, said Snyder, Moscow and two others in attendance. A few weeks after that meeting, in his email of Feb. 7, Snyder told Ajamie he was writing on behalf of the amfAR board, and he threatened Ajamie with a lawsuit.
Snyder demanded that Ajamie “immediately cease and desist from your recent, ongoing conduct concerning Mr. Harvey Weinstein, which was never authorized by amfAR and is detrimental to its interests.” Snyder’s email noted that Ajamie no longer worked for amfAR and argued that “any information” he had learned about Weinstein during his investigation “was privileged and confidential.”
In his email to Ajamie, Snyder also detailed the timing of his own contacts with Bloom.
“On January 31, 2017, Lisa Bloom reported to us that on October 26, 2016, and again on January 7, 2017, you contacted her regarding Mr. Weinstein’s personal life,” Snyder wrote to Ajamie.
In a response to Snyder’s email, Ajamie expressed little concern about its menacing tone.
“Quit writing me these unsubstantiated emails with your threats,” Ajamie responded on Feb. 7. “If you are half a man, allow me to speak to the Board to defend myself against your slanderous and untrue statements. And those of Mr. Weinstein.”
Ten days later, on Feb. 17, Snyder arranged for Bloom to talk on the phone to four members on the audit committee of amfAR’s board about her contacts with Ajamie, something that Boies confirmed, as did another individual who has listened to tapes of the call.
During that call, Snyder said Bloom told the four amfAR audit committee members that Ajamie had reached out to her in October 2016 and asked her if she would have an interest in pursuing allegations against Weinstein. Bloom didn’t shoot down the idea initially, but when they met a second time and Ajamie asked her again about what they had previously discussed, Bloom said she told him that she couldn’t take on such cases.
Bloom disclosed to amfAR’s audit committee that she was negotiating a book-to-movie deal with Weinstein. Indeed, in late March 2017, Variety reported that Jay-Z and The Weinstein Co. had agreed to make a documentary series about the life of Trayvon Martin, based in part on Bloom’s book.
Snyder and the individual that heard a recording of the call—and who requested anonymity in order to speak freely—both noted that Bloom never said she represented Weinstein.
“We were never told nor did we know there was an attorney-client relationship,” Snyder said.
But Boies and Bloom’s own previous accounts to The American Lawyer make clear that she had advised Weinstein since at least November 2016, as well as in February of this year when she spoke to members of amfAR’s audit committee. Around that same time, Snyder also began attempting to persuade amfAR board members that their “personal interests in not being sued by Harvey Weinstein make it incumbent” for them to sign NDAs with him, wrote Moscow in his letter to the NYAG’s office.
If executed, some drafts of those agreements barred amfAR board members from looking into Weinstein’s business and personal matters, as well as talking to law enforcement, Moscow wrote in his letter to the NYAG. (Weinstein had avoided criminal charges in a much-publicized incident in New York with an Italian model in 2015.)
Snyder vehemently disagrees with Moscow’s assessment that the agreements would have blocked amfAR board members from speaking with law enforcement about Weinstein.
“The agreements did not bar signatories from cooperating fully with law enforcement,” said Snyder, noting that amfAR still cooperated with Schneiderman’s office even after some board members signed NDAs with Weinstein.
At the time he asked some of the amfAR board members to sign NDAs, Snyder said he did not know that Bloom was representing Weinstein. Boies corroborates that assertion.
“I was never on any call in which Harvey [Weinstein] intimated with Orin [Snyder] also on the call that Lisa [Bloom] was working for him,” Boies said.
Snyder also contends that Bloom “was not a significant factor” in his argument of why amfAR board members should sign NDAs with Weinstein.
“The 2015 amfAR Cannes auction event was a tremendous success in the fight to end the global AIDS epidemic, raising over $30 million in a single evening to support amfAR’s mission to eliminate this plague,” Snyder said in a statement. “AmfAR retained Gibson Dunn to review the $600,000 contribution from this auction to Harvard’s [ART]. After a thorough review, we concluded and reported to the board that this contribution was a lawful charitable donation to ART, as Harvard itself attested. Any contrary suggestion is misinformed and wrong.”
Weinstein, who has assembled a formidable legal team to push back against sexual assault allegations and negotiate his separation from the company that bears his name, has recently been advised by Loeb & Loeb partner Jason Lilien in the amfAR affair.
Lilien, a former chief of the NYAG’s charities bureau who joined his firm’s New York office in 2015 from Zuckerman Spaeder, started representing Weinstein this fall, long after the studio executive’s battles with Ajamie and some amfAR board members began—but also prior to allegations about his personal behavior becoming public.
“There is no evidence that Mr. Weinstein engaged in any violation of state or federal charity law or that any charity, bidder or donor was harmed in connection with the amfAR event,” Lilien said in a statement to The American Lawyer.
Weinstein ultimately returned the controversial $600,000 sum to amfAR. Bloom recently stepped aside from her role representing Weinstein, admitting publicly that taking him on as a client had been “a colossal mistake.”
Cole, who tapped Willkie Farr & Gallagher in 2012 to take his namesake clothing company private, said in a statement that during his three decades with amfAR the organization had made great strides in its effort to find a cure for AIDS and HIV. He also expressed dismay with his friend Weinstein.
“I find [Weinstein’s] actions deeply disturbing but if there is any good to come out of these revelations it is the start of a thoughtful self-reflection of our society and of our collective behavior,” said Cole, adding that “Weinstein’s charitable role in supporting amfAR has become the subject of debate and scrutiny.”
For his part, Snyder did not let Moscow’s arguments to the NYAG go unanswered.
In a Sept. 18, 2017, letter sent by Snyder to NYAG charities bureau chief James Sheehan and charities bureau enforcement division co-chief Emily Stern, the Gibson Dunn partner stated that an “informal review” by Schneiderman’s office had found no unlawful contact by amfAR’s staff or board members related to the June 2015 transactions by Weinstein.
However, the NYAG’s informal review had led the state agency to identify “certain areas and potential concerns” that amfAR should address going forward, Snyder said in his letter. The nonprofit’s board would retain a law firm to “undertake an independent comprehensive review” of amfAR’s governance and structure, according to Snyder’s letter.
The American Lawyer has learned that Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler is now poised to advise amfAR. The organization’s audit committee has asked the New York-based firm to help its board take steps to meet the NYAG’s requirements for a corporate governance overhaul.
In his Sept. 21 response to Snyder, which he also sent to Moscow, Sheehan instructed amfAR to retain a new outside firm—he did not mention Patterson Belknap—in order in order to “strengthen and improve” its governance. Sheehan wrote that he “fully agreed” with amfAR’s decision to retain new counsel.
“We expect that amfAR will retain a law firm with expertise in governing not-for-profit organizations that has not previously advised the organization concerning the June 2015 amfAR-ART transaction or subsequent investigations,” Sheehan’s letter said.
Cole, in his statement, cited the NYAG’s conclusions and said he was committed to implementing such “recommendations to ensure that our fundraising policies and procedures are never called into question again.”
As for Gibson Dunn’s Snyder, he said his relationship with amfAR continues. But for how long?
“Undetermined,” he wrote in an email.