Aipac Was Pushed on Legal Fees, Lawyers Say

Josh Gerstein - NY Sun - July 19, 2006

Lawyers for two pro-Israel lobbyists under federal indictment for obtaining and distributing classified information are asking a judge to dismiss the case because the government allegedly pressured the pair's former employer not to pay their legal bills.

In papers filed yesterday in federal court in Alexandria, Va., attorneys for Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman said prosecutors repeatedly questioned the American Israel Public Affairs Committee about its support for the legal defense of the two men, who were fired from the group in March 2005.

In August, Messrs. Rosen and Weissman were indicted on charges that they conspired with a Defense Department analyst, Lawrence Franklin, to disclose classified information to foreign officials and reporters. Franklin pleaded guilty in October and has been cooperating with prosecutors, but the former Aipac staffers have insisted they are innocent.

Mr.Rosen's lawyer, Abbe Lowell, said in the new court filing that an Aipac attorney "reported to me that a lawyer from the U.S. Attorney's office told Aipac's counsel that the office was prepared to conclude that Aipac did not commit any wrongdoing, but that a company that had not done anything wrong would not continue to pay the fees of its wrongdoing employees."

An attorney for Mr. Weissman, John Nassikas III, said the government's request went further, with a prosecutor urging the group to "cut off Dr. Rosen's and Mr. Weissman's health benefits and severance pay."

The lawyers argued to Judge Thomas Ellis III that the pressure violated their clients' constitutional rights to counsel and to a fair trial. The defense attorneys said the government used the threat of potential criminal charges against Aipac to convince the group to cooperate by cutting off its two former employees. "The government abused that cooperation by using its substantial leverage to interfere in the private legal relationship through which Aipac paid defendants' legal fees," Messrs. Lowell and Nassikas wrote. "As a result, the playing field has been tipped unfairly in the government's favor."

A spokesman for Aipac, Patrick Dorton, defended the group's dealings with Messrs. Rosen and Weissman. "All the decisions in this case including decisions about the dismissal and legal fees were Aipac decisions alone, made independently, and based on the facts and our commitment to doing the right thing," the spokesman said.

Mr. Dorton said Aipac has repeatedly attempted to work out an agreement under which the group would pay the fees, but Messrs. Rosen and Weissman have resisted such a deal by refusing to waive their rights to sue the organization.

The defense filing says legal costs since Aipac cut off payment last year exceed $4 million.

The defense team conceded that Aipac offered to pay "a deeply-discounted lump sum" to cover the legal expenses, but the lawyers implied that the group's unwillingness to foot the whole bill was the result of government pressure.

A spokesperson for the prosecution, James Rybicki, did not return a call seeking comment yesterday.

The lawyers for the two ex-lobbyists also suggested that Aipac encouraged the two men to plead guilty to some charges in order to resolve the case.

"Aipac's counsel also informed me that, in the event the government offered a reasonable plea bargain to Mr. Weissman and he refused to plead guilty, Aipac would stop paying the attorneys fees and costs," Mr. Nassikas wrote.

Mr. Lowell reported receiving similar advice from the group.

Mr.Dorton would not comment directly on those assertions, but said, "This brief is selective about how it uses the facts and the net result is a significant distortion of what really took place."

The chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Malcolm Hoenlein, said he saw no indication that Aipac pressured Messrs. Rosen and Weissman to plead guilty. "I've not heard any sentiment of that kind expressed by people in Aipac I've spoken with," Mr. Hoenlein told The New York Sun. "It's contrary to anything I've heard."

The defense filing relies extensively on a ruling last month by a federal judge in Manhattan, Lewis Kaplan, who found that the Justice Department unlawfully pressured an accounting firm, KPMG, to cut off payments of legal fees for 17 former firm staffers charged with tax fraud. Judge Kaplan said the pressure violated the defendants' rights.

The defense lawyers said Aipac itself faced the possibility of prosecution under controversial guidelines issued in 2003 by the deputy attorney general at the time, Larry Thompson.That memo, which is still in force, says prosecutors deciding whether to take action against a corporation can consider payment of employees' legal fees as indicative of a lack of cooperation.

According to the new brief, Aipac had a joint defense agreement with lawyers for Messrs. Rosen and Weissman, allowing the free exchange of privileged information to prepare a legal defense, but the organization severed that arrangement when it fired the two men last year.

  • See Also: The Franklin/AIPAC Spy Case Page