Attorney, Alum Talks Trials
Published: Friday, October 26, 2012
Updated: Friday, October 26, 2012 02:10
Georgetown Law professor and attorney Robert S. Bennett (COL ’61) spoke about three trials that defined his career in McNeir Auditorium Tuesday night.
Bennett, best known for representing former president Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, also played a role in cases surrounding the Valerie Plame and Iran-Contra affairs. His talk was co-sponsored by the Lecture Fund and the College Dean’s Office.
“I sought to bring Bob Bennett to campus because I knew he would offer a unique and interesting take on what happened behind the scenes during some of America’s most iconic scandals,” Chris Mulrooney (COL ’14), vice chair of internal affairs for the Lecture Fund, said to introduce Bennett. “But beyond his unique perspective, Bob is an engaged member of the Georgetown community who cares about students here on campus.”
After graduating from Georgetown University Law Center in 1964, Bennett went on to receive a degree from Harvard Law the following year. After graduation, he returned to the District to work as a clerk for U.S. District Court Judge Howard Corcoran and then became a federal prosecutor.
“Beyond the high-profile cases and high-paying contracts, in being a federal prosecutor, I dealt with rape, murder and extortion cases that gave me a true sense of fulfillment in knowing I was putting some really bad people away,” Bennett said.
Bennett later entered the field of private law.
At the beginning of his talk, Bennett described how he represented Judith Miller, a writer at the Washington bureau of The New York Times who disclosed the identity of undercover Central Intelligence Agency Operative Valerie Plame in what became known as the Plame Affair.
During the trial, Miller was jailed after being found in contempt of court after refusing to cite her sources. Bennett worked out an agreement with prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald that allowed Miller to reveal her notes to her lawyer rather than the prosecutor, an act that led to the conviction of Scooter Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, who had leaked the private information.
Bennett pointed to the Miller case as one that taught him that the justice system is not infallible.
“This case definitely pointed out some of the catches of the judicial system,” he said. “The prosecution saw leaking confidential information as a very bad thing, but on the other hand, we have the idea that reporters have a right to protect their sources [because] if they always had to reveal them, they could never go about their jobs properly.”
Bennett also discussed his time representing Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998.
According to Bennett, Hillary Clinton had hired him to investigate the case.
“I was called in one day after being referred to the Clintons by some of their colleagues and friends, and at first, it was certainly a surreal experience,” he said. “That said — after I said ‘Mr. President, how are you?’ it was like any other client, and we would have some really honest discussions.”
Bennett also pointed out some details of the scandal that are often overlooked.
“It’s not unfair to say that the President exercised some pretty bad judgment in that situation — no question about it — but one of the things that struck me was one day, I talked to him four times on the phone. It was getting late in the afternoon, and I had a conference call for another case, so when I let him know I needed to run, he said, ‘That’s fine, I have to get back to Iraq,’” Bennett said. “Beyond all the nonsense, the man did a great job of compartmentalizing to keep up with the real issues.”
During the question-and-answer portion at the end of the presentation, a student asked if Bennett ever had any hesitation about representing Clinton.
“This was a great example of handling a crisis, and one that applies to everyone’s lives,” he said. “The important thing about handling these situations is getting the truth out, and getting it out right away. You can’t cover it up. That’s where everything goes south.”
Finally, Bennett addressed his involvement in the Iran Contra Affair, a 1986 scandal in which U.S. officials illegally sold weapons to Iran, which had been under an arms embargo at the time. Officials had hoped the sale would secure the safe release of seven hostages and facilitate U.S. Intelligence aid to Nicaraguan contras.
Bennett represented former defense secretary Casper Weinberger, who was one of 14 officials to be indicted in wake of the controversy.
According to Bennett, although 11 of the officials were convicted, he was able to grant Weinberger enough time to be pardoned, in the final days of former President George H.W. Bush’s term.
“Beyond the law, this really hit home the power of the pardon,” Bennett said. “No matter how outrageous — or the criticism on to whom [pardons] are given — they exist as, in my opinion, the single greatest power of the president.”
One student asked him to describe a situation in which his beliefs conflicted with those of his clients; Bennett responded that his opinions should not matter when considering a case.
“I’m a great believer that everybody is entitled to a defense,” he said. “Our system says that guilt or innocence isn’t determined in a lawyer’s office; it’s up to the government to prove guilt. Our constitution gives everyone, without bias, the right to representation, and I believe in that.”
Bennett concluded by commenting on what he called the most important aspect of his life.
“You have to put happiness and fulfillment over everything. Anybody that tells you that you can’t be successful and have a career is lying,” he said. “I’ve done it, and I always put my family first. That’s what I’m most proud of.”
This message hit home for his audience.
“Beyond seeing this lawyer who has been amazingly successful, it was great to have him give us some life lessons too,” student Max Malec (COL ’15) said. “It really added so much to the reputation of this man who has represented so many powerful people.”