Jack Abramoff, an ally of several prominent Republicans, and Steve Rosen, a driving force behind the pro-Israel lobby, were two of the most influential Jewish lobbyists in Washington before legal scandals effectively ended their careers and sent them scrambling to stay out of prison.
Their cases are very different: Abramoff has pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy arising out of his work lobbying for Indian gaming interests. Rosen is fighting allegations that as chief strategist at pro-Israel powerhouse Aipac, he received and passed classified national security information to unauthorized parties. But they have one thing in common: their lawyer, Abbe Lowell.
It’s not surprising that Lowell would find himself at the center of two controversies sending shock waves through Washington and the nation. One of the country’s foremost criminal defense attorneys, Lowell, 53, has seen the fray many times. In 1998, he served as chief counsel to House Democrats on the Judiciary Committee during President Clinton’s impeachment hearings, giving a closing argument that’s likely to be remembered as a classic of the genre. Lowell steered Rep. Gary Condit through a maze of accusations in 2000 after the disappearance of Chandra Levy. In 2001, he represented biotech entrepreneur Sam Waksal in the insider trading case that ultimately led to the imprisonment of Martha Stewart on related charges.
“Abbe Lowell is the most experienced lawyer you can get in representing ethics violations and public corruption,” said Jeralyn Merritt, a Colorado attorney and frequent television legal commentator. Merritt praised the plea agreement that Lowell arranged for Abramoff, who has not yet been sentenced, predicting Abramoff might serve as few as five years.
“He’s so wired in Washington and knows what’s going on,” Merritt said of Lowell. “He’s one of those rare attorneys who not only can make a deal but can try a case. The ability to get one sentence that wraps this up for Abramoff is great lawyering.”
Lowell is known as a zealous —and, when necessary, hard-nosed — advocate for his clients.
Elkan Abramowitz, a prominent New York attorney who has worked with Lowell on civil litigation, described Lowell as “dogged,” “serious,” “not a shmoozer” and “direct and blunt.”
Whatever Lowell’s courtroom demeanor, associates paint a picture of a lawyer who, despite a punishing schedule, has managed over the years to be a community stalwart, serving as a girls’ soccer coach and as a board member of the JCC of Greater Washington.
A Bronx native, Lowell is a 1977 graduate of Columbia Law School. He went to Columbia College, where, among other things, he wrote for the campus newspaper, the Columbia Daily Spectator. Even at a young age, Lowell showed promise. Jonathan Groner, a former editor of Legal Times who met Lowell in the Spectator office, said that Lowell was “bright, Democratic and political even then.”
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Tzedek, the Conservative synagogue Lowell attends in Potomac, Md., described Lowell as a “serious Jew” who’s “comfortable” in synagogue and well versed on issues affecting world Jewry. The Aipac case “is exactly the kind of stuff where [Lowell’s] interests converge, as an attorney and as someone who cares deeply about Israel and the Jewish people,” Weinblatt said.
Those loyalties may be put to the test in the Aipac case, which Lowell is said to consider the most important of his career. No one except Lowell knows what strategy he will pursue in his defense of Rosen, but it could cause Aipac embarrassment when the case comes to trial in late April.
Aipac’s public saga began in August 2004, when on the eve of the Republican National Convention, the FBI raided the organization’s offices, looking for incriminating documents. A year later, in August 2005, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia indicted Rosen, by then Aipac’s former director of foreign policy issues, and Keith Weissman, who had been an Aipac Iran analyst. The government disclosed in the indictment that it had had the men under surveillance for more than four years and alleged that they had received and passed along classified information. The indictment named a Pentagon aide, Lawrence Franklin, as their co-conspirator. Franklin, who has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, pleaded guilty in October 2005 to passing classified documents to unauthorized persons and improperly storing such documents in his home. He was sentenced to 12 and a half years in prison last week.
The charges against Rosen and Weissman carry a term of up to 10 years in prison.
When the scandal first broke, Aipac and the employees presented a united front. Aipac rallied to Rosen’s and Weissman’s aid, and the men continued to work there. On the advice of its attorney, Nat Lewin, Aipac hired Lowell to conduct Rosen’s defense, while Weissman soon hired John Nassikas III, another high-profile Washington attorney. In March 2005, however, the organization fired Rosen and Weissman, saying that they had engaged in “conduct that was not part of their job, and beneath the standards required of Aipac employees.”
Even after firing Rosen and Weissman, Aipac continued to pay for the men’s defense. In recent months, however, a dispute over the payment of those legal fees has erupted between Aipac and the men, who may sue their former employer, the Forward reported last month.
The dispute over the fees is not the only source of friction between Aipac and the men, sources familiar with the case said. According to some views, defense attorneys are expected to argue that Aipac encouraged and paid Rosen and Weissman to gather information from administration officials, a tactic which is likely to put the men at odds with Aipac, given the organization’s attempt to distance itself from them and portray their activities as outside the purview of their jobs. Sources also said that Rosen and Weissman are likely to call upon senior Aipac officials to testify in court.
“The evidence in this case will show that Dr. Rosen and Mr. Weissman always acted in Aipac’s interests, never were on their own and acted with the knowledge and approval of their superiors,” Lowell told the Forward last month.
But if Lowell’s strategy is putting him and his client at odds with Aipac, it is not apparent in public statements.
“I recommended that Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman retain Abbe Lowell when they learned they were being investigated because Abbe combines the best qualities of a criminal defense lawyer,” Lewin said in a statement to the Forward. “He is totally dedicated to his clients, highly ingenious, aggressive, fearless, and, at the same time, solidly practical. He has great trial skills and is very persuasive. And he is unusual in the trial bar because he has great ability to recognize and analyze technical legal issues. He does not hide his Jewish identity and affiliates with many Jewish causes.”
Some observers think that Lowell will try to poke holes in the testimony of the government’s witnesses, especially Franklin, on the theory that “there’s less there than meets the eye” to the government’s case.
He’s done it before. Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, a Democrat who worked with Lowell during the Clinton impeachment, said Lowell’s strategy was to coax Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr into unwittingly betraying how weak the Republicans’ case was.
“The strategy was to deny that there was an impeachable offense, and a big piece was that Starr had to testify that there was nothing to anything” in the charges against Clinton, Frank said.
Frank came away a fan of Lowell.
“People have a right to a legal defense,” he said. “In Clinton’s case, there was no crime. In Abramoff’s case, there was no defense.”
That Lowell understood the difference, Frank said, “is a tribute to how good a lawyer he is and how intellectually honest he is.”