As Harvey Weinstein became engulfed in scandal over allegations of sexual harassment, Washington-based whistleblower lawyer Debra Katz found herself representing a longtime executive who reportedly had confronted the influential Hollywood producer about his alleged misconduct.
Katz of Washington’s Katz, Marshall & Banks is counsel to Irwin Reiter, a longtime Weinstein Co. executive who, according to a report in The New Yorker this week, objected to Weinstein’s alleged harassment of a temporary front-desk assistant named Emily Nestor. Twenty-five at the time, Nestor, a law school graduate, recounted what she described as “textbook sexual harassment” that included inappropriate comments about her appearance and Weinstein’s alleged boasts of sexual relations with actresses.
In a brief phone interview and in emails Wednesday, Katz, who was first identified in The New Yorker article as representing Reiter, said scandals such as the Weinstein saga “shine a spotlight on egregious sexual harassment, which goes on in companies across the country every single day.”
Katz declined to talk in any detail about her work for Reiter, including when she was first contacted. She said she was “gratified” to be advising Reiter, who reportedly had worked for Weinstein for 30 years.
Messages to Reiter’s company email account and to LinkedIn were not immediately returned Wednesday.
“Hopefully, this case will provide a tipping point and will empower women to come forward when they suffer sexual harassment and encourage men to object to this unlawful treatment of their coworkers,” Katz told The National Law Journal. “This behavior is despicable and has to stop. I’m gratified to play the role I am playing in this case advising a male executive who had the courage to object to such behavior.”
Reiter, according to The New Yorker’s report, messaged the female assistant to apologize for how Weinstein allegedly treated her on her first day. “We view this very seriously and I personally am very sorry your first day was like this,” Reiter wrote in a LinkedIn message, the authenticity of which Katz confirmed for the magazine. “Also if there are further unwanted advances, please let us know.”
In 2016, just before the presidential election, Reiter, according to The New Yorker, messaged Nestor again to say, “All this Trump stuff made me think of you,” and added that he had “fought” Weinstein over his treatment of women three weeks before the incident involving the desk assistant. “I even wrote him an email that got me labelled by him as sex police,” Reiter wrote, according to the magazine report. “The fight I had with him about you was epic. I told him if you were my daughter he would have not made out so well.”
‘A Key Witness in a Major Scandal’
Asked about how she came to have a role in the unfolding Weinstein scandal, Katz said her practice involves representing not only whistleblowers and victims of harassment but also those who stand up for others who have suffered from alleged misconduct.
“The fact is, my practice is broader than whistleblower law. I’m often retained to represent individuals who have knowledge of discrimination, sexual harassment, fraud, waste and abuse and are witnesses to illegal practices. Or they themselves may have objected to such practices. These individuals reasonably fear retaliation and need assistance navigating internal investigations, press inquiries and the like. Most individuals thrust into the kind of situation that Mr. Reiter is now—he’s a key witness in a major scandal—retain counsel,” Katz said.
“It was reasonable for him to retain counsel given that he was being thrust into this major scandal,” she added. “In fact, he is the good guy here.”
For two decades, rumors of sexual harassment and assault followed Weinstein as he claimed Academy Awards and built himself into one of the most influential figures in Hollywood, according to an Oct. 5 investigative report by The New York Times. With that clout came the power to intimidate victims into silence—through nondisclosure agreements, threats to sue and, in many cases, an unspoken understanding that he could make or break careers, according to the paper.
Weinstein had assembled a powerhouse legal team in the buildup to The New Yorker article and the New York Times investigation.
Through the storm, Weinstein’s longtime lawyer, David Boies, chairman of Boies Schiller Flexner, has kept the producer on as a client. Although that relationship could be tested if litigation erupts between Weinstein and his former company, which is also a client of Boies’ firm. On Saturday, the noted plaintiffs lawyer Lisa Bloom, a women’s rights advocate who had been advising Weinstein, stepped down from his legal team.
Weinstein’s statement in response to The New Yorker piece stated: “Any allegations of nonconsensual sex are unequivocally denied by Mr. Weinstein. Mr. Weinstein has further confirmed that there were never any acts of retaliation against any women for refusing his advances.”
Weinstein’s namesake production company fired him Sunday. The company has also enlisted Debevoise & Plimpton partner John Kiernan for an independent investigation into the sexual harassment allegations.
Katz said Wednesday that her client wants to cooperate with that investigation.
“When the public thinks about whistleblowers, they tend to peg these individuals as having expressed concerns about fraud, waste, abuse, safety issues, financial improprieties, and the like. And certainly there is a well-established set of laws that protect individuals from retaliation for raising those types of concerns,” Katz said.
She continued: “But the law also protects individuals who expose or object to illegal activity, such as sexual harassment. People who are willing to stick their necks out and support others in objecting to sexual harassment or other unlawful employment practices are also entitled to legal protection. I represent those individuals as well. In representing them, it’s my job to ensure that they face no retaliation for having done the right thing.”