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Robert S. Bennett, Washington’s Go-to Lawyer in a Scandal, Dies at 84

U.S.Robert S. Bennett, Washington’s Go-to Lawyer in a Scandal, Dies at 84

Robert S. Bennett, one of the nation’s leading criminal defense lawyers, who was known for his representation of the powerful and celebrated caught up in scandals, died on Sunday at his home in Washington. He was 84.

The cause was kidney failure, his daughter Peggy Bennett said.

Mr. Bennett most famously represented President Bill Clinton when he was mired in trouble after lying about having had an intimate relationship with a young White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. Mr. Bennett was initially the president’s personal lawyer in a lawsuit brought by Paula Jones that triggered the scandal. Ms. Jones, an Arkansas state clerical worker, contended that when Mr. Clinton was the state’s governor, he made unwanted sexual advances to her in a Little Rock hotel room.

In addition to his association with Mr. Clinton, Mr. Bennett was sought after by several other prominent political figures ensnared in scandal in Washington.

In September 1992, Mr. Bennett found himself shuttling from courtroom to courtroom in Washington’s federal courthouse, sometimes on the same day, to defend simultaneously two former secretaries of defense, one a Democrat, Clark M. Clifford, and the other a Republican, Caspar W. Weinberger.

Mr. Clifford, who had spent more than a half-century at the pinnacle of influence in the nation’s capital and served as defense secretary under President Lyndon B. Johnson, faced fraud charges in connection with a banking scandal. Mr. Weinberger, who served under President Ronald Reagan, was charged with lying to investigators about his knowledge of the Iran-contra scandal, the administration’s sale of weapons to Tehran and supply of covert aid to Nicaraguan rebels.

Mr. Bennett was a robust warrior for his clients, not least for his ability to deliver an earnest defense of them not only inside the courtroom but outside it as well, before television cameras and reporters.

In the case of President Clinton, whose dalliance with Ms. Lewinsky came to light in the Paula Jones lawsuit, Mr. Bennett readily told reporters that the Jones filing was “tabloid trash with a legal caption.”

When Ms. Jones asserted through her lawyers that she could demonstrate her credibility by attesting that Mr. Clinton had a pronounced bend in his penis, Mr. Bennett did not shrink from engaging; he publicly proclaimed the presidential anatomy as that of a normal man.

Mr. Bennett, along with a Clinton administration lawyer, argued before the United States Supreme Court that the president should have immunity from civil lawsuits like that of Ms. Jones until after he left office. The court rejected that argument 9-0. After that, Mr. Clinton gave the deposition in which he lied about his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky, which led to his impeachment in December 1998. The president paid Ms. Jones $850,000 in damages to settle her lawsuit.

Years earlier, Mr. Bennett successfully argued that Mr. Clifford was too ill to stand trial. Mr. Weinberger, who faced two felony counts, was pardoned by President George H.W. Bush on Dec. 24, 1992, before Mr. Weinberger’s trial was to begin and just weeks before Mr. Bush left office. Mr. Bennett took a leading role in pressing for the pardon.

“Bob is totally in command, both legally and politically,” Mr. Weinberger told The Times in an interview at the time. “He knows a lot of people, in the press and elsewhere, whom he’s able to talk to. He is a holistic physician. He treats the whole patient.”

Robert Stephen Bennett was born on Aug. 2, 1939, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn to F. Robert and Nancy (Walsh) Bennett. His father worked for a bank; his mother was a homemaker. They divorced when Robert was about 7.

Robert had the benefit of a supporting network of friends and family members headed by a well-connected uncle, William Walsh, a prominent doctor whose patients included Jacqueline Kennedy.

Dr. Walsh saw to it that his nephew attended Brooklyn Preparatory School, a highly rigorous Jesuit institution (since closed). Dr. Walsh even saw to it that his nephew was on the radar of Georgetown University; he had its president, the Rev. Edward Bunn, make encouraging phone calls to the young Mr. Bennett.

Mr. Bennett did, in fact, attend Georgetown and then graduated from its law school. While a law student, he made an important connection when he worked as a personal assistant to Thomas G. Corcoran, a top legal adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Mr. Corcoran went on to become the model for the modern Washington lawyer-lobbyist.

After graduation, Mr. Bennett was a law clerk for Mr. Corcoran’s brother, Howard Corcoran, a federal trial judge in the District of Columbia.

He then worked as a federal prosecutor in the district for more than three years, followed by a stint in a traditional large law firm before setting out as a defense attorney.

Mr. Bennett became one of the early members of a select group of Washington lawyers who created their own legal specialty, made it highly lucrative and went on to dominate it for decades: a white-collar defense bar for those entangled in the capital’s major political cases. Like Mr. Bennett, these lawyers were, for the most part, former local federal prosecutors.

Before the Watergate scandals of the Nixon administration, top-tier Washington law firms avoided criminal defense work. “Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, most law firms shunned criminal work as being beneath them,” he wrote in his memoir, “In the Ring” (2008).

He first came to national attention when he was hired in 1989 as special counsel to the Senate Ethics Committee for the case of the Keating Five, senators — one Republican and four Democrats — who were accused of doing favors in exchange for campaign contributions from Charles H. Keating, a savings and loan executive who would be convicted in a massive fraud scheme.

Mr. Bennett’s aggressive approach to the job was widely described as having kept pressure on the Senate not to deal lightly with the cases. Four of the five were given reprimands, and Senator Alan Cranston, Democrat of California, received a severe rebuke for his behavior and later announced his retirement.

Mr. Bennett, a heavyset man who was jovial with reporters, once told The Times that the greatest number of letters he received about his performance during the Ethics Committee hearings, which were televised, were from people who commented on his disheveled appearance. Some offered to sell him custom-tailored shirts or suits.

Years later, one of his targets in the Keating investigation, Senator John McCain of Arizona, turned to Mr. Bennett to represent him in negotiations with The New York Times over an article involving his relationship with a female lobbyist.

The Times reported in 2008, when Mr. McCain was running for president, that in his 2000 presidential campaign, the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, began appearing with him at fund-raisers and at his office, prompting his advisers to caution Mr. McCain about the possible appearance of a romantic involvement. Ms. Iseman sued the newspaper for libel. The Times did not retract its article but published a note to readers saying it had not intended to suggest a romantic affair, and the suit was dropped.

Mr. Bennett also represented Marge Schott, the owner of the Cincinnati Reds who was facing a lifetime ban by Major League Baseball for having made racial and ethnic slurs. He negotiated a $25,000 fine and a year’s suspension, after which she was allowed to resume her favorite activity, attending games with her dog, Schottzie.

In 2004, Judith Miller, a Times reporter who was in jail for refusing to testify to a grand jury about one of her sources, dismissed her lawyers who were associated with the newspaper and hired Mr. Bennett. Ms. Miller had maintained that she was standing up for her First Amendment right as a journalist to protect her confidential sources. But Mr. Bennett helped craft a complicated arrangement that allowed her to testify before the grand jury and get out of jail. Mr. Bennett said he was able to accomplish what he did because his duty was to represent his client, Ms. Miller, not the First Amendment.

He and his younger brother, William J. Bennett, made up one of the capital’s odd celebrity pairings. Bill Bennett has been a vocal conservative commentator who achieved prominence decrying what he perceived as the loss of moral values in society. He served as President Ronald Reagan’s education secretary and President George H.W. Bush’s drug czar.

Robert Bennett was, in contrast, scrupulously apolitical; his public positions were only about his clients. When he was publicly depicting President Clinton as the victim of political enemies, his brother was on the Sunday talk shows denouncing Mr. Clinton for bringing about “the trashiest moment in American presidential history.”

One private activity in which they participated together was a sometimes regular card game that included Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Associate Justice Antonin Scalia of the Supreme Court.

Mr. Bennett married Ellen Gilbert in 1969. In addition to their daughter Peggy and his brother, his wife survives him, along with two more daughters, Catherine and Sarah Bennett; and six grandchildren.

Alex Traub contributed reporting.


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