News & Politics

Pol Loses! Lawyers Win!

Of all the angles played by Washington law firms, few can bring as much joy as having clients who aren’t playing with their own money.

Take the battle between two congressmen, John Boehner of Ohio and Jim McDermott of Washington: In a near-decadelong fight over McDermott’s leak of the contents of privileged and illegally taped conversations involving Boehner, the two ran up legal bills of about $1.6 million.

As congressmen make only $169,300 a year, that would seem a lot to pay lawyers. In April federal judge Thomas Hogan ruled that McDermott had to pay not only his own lawyers but also Boehner’s.

McDermott seemed unusually jaunty for someone socked with that kind of a fee. He told the Associated Press it was a small price to pay to fight for freedom of speech and there would be no further appeals.

But both Boehner and McDermott could afford to be sanguine about the outcome—neither was paying. The law allows congressmen to use campaign contributions and legal-defense funds to pay lawyer bills; one of McDermott’s better-known fund donors was Barbra Streisand. Both men collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions, yet they rarely face significant opposition.

So the big winner is not Boehner but Michael Carvin, his lead attorney from the Washington office of Ohio-based Jones Day. Nor was there any crying at the offices of the losing firm, Kirkland & Ellis, which collected $600,000 for its efforts.

Also profiting from the case was Ted Boutrous, a First Amendment specialist at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher who represented five news organizations defending McDermott’s right to leak.

So it was a rollicking case, with Boehner winning the $60,000 judgment, a sum puny in comparison with the legal fees.

This article is from the May 2008 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from the issue, click here.

More>> Capital Comment Blog | News & Politics | Society Photos