News & Politics

Better Get Brendan

If you’re in trouble and your case doesn’t look good, you might want Washington’s top defense lawyer.

On April 7, 2009, a cool and windy spring day, a white van pulled up outside the downtown DC offices of Williams & Connolly.

A slight man with dark glasses and white hair jumped out and slid open the van’s middle door. Out came newly exonerated Alaska senator Ted Stevens, wife Catherine, their two daughters, and several attorneys toting thick briefcases and big smiles. All looked happy except for Stevens’s principal attorney, who stood by the door he had just opened, a scowl on his face. He was, in his own words, in “a silent rage” about how prosecutorial misconduct had delayed this day.

Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., who had turned 67 three weeks earlier on March 11, had never been a young-looking man. His high-school classmates back at Providence Country Day School used the word “fearsome” to describe him. Their nickname for him was George Sully—George in honor of the country’s first President, also known for his stony countenance and leadership skills.

For the last 35 years, only one of Sullivan’s clients, Walter Forbes of Cendant Corporation, had received a guilty verdict the lawyer hadn’t been able to undo or finesse (though it took three trials for Sullivan to be bested). In all that time, only one had ever seen the inside of a prison, despite the fact that, by Sullivan’s own admission, “by the time someone comes to me, they are pretty far up the creek.”

Even after Stevens had been found guilty of multiple felonies by a federal jury in October 2008, Sullivan had never doubted that the conviction would be overturned and Stevens wouldn’t spend a day in jail. Admittedly disappointed by the guilty verdict, Sullivan assured Stevens it was only a question of when and how it would be overturned. As it happened, by the molasses-like measures of criminal justice, the reversal took a remarkably short time—just over five months. Even so, Sullivan wasn’t the type to dance in the end zone. “I don’t do high fives,” he would say.

After attorney general Eric Holder announced on April 1, 2009, that the Department of Justice could no longer go forward with the prosecution of Stevens, it had been a foregone conclusion that Judge Emmet Sullivan (no relation to Brendan) would dismiss the case and effectively void the jury’s unanimous verdict. Not only did Sullivan win dismissal of the case against his client, but it happened in a way the government couldn’t appeal. It was one of the most decisive victories in Sullivan’s career. Even so, he couldn’t hide his distaste for how the trial had been handled by the government.

For years there had been a myth about Brendan Sullivan. It went like this: In any case he tries, there’s a greater chance the federal or state prosecutor will go to jail than his client will. On the surface, such a notion seems a lawyerly exaggeration. Yet in this case, the myth hit 100 on the truth-o-meter. While Ted Stevens was going free, the prosecutors on the team that had brought the massive resources of the federal government against the wily 40-year Senate veteran—apparently for not revealing that he had been given a chair, a barbecue grill, some Christmas lights, and home repairs as gifts—were themselves headed for an investigation into allegedly “unethical” prosecutorial conduct.

As Sullivan stepped onto the sidewalk outside the firm’s offices at 12th and G streets, Northwest, he pondered one of his most satisfying courthouse victories. For Williams & Connolly, the firm with which he had been associated for more than 40 years, it was simply an ordinary day in the life of Washington’s most powerful and influential partnership. Sullivan wouldn’t say it, but years earlier, after winning a not-guilty verdict for the man who shot President Reagan in front of a national TV audience, one of Sullivan’s partners had crowed, “Another day, another dollar.” It was an unofficial firm motto that the more discreet Sullivan preferred not to echo.

Many American cities are defined by the names on their tallest buildings: the banks of Charlotte, the insurance companies of Hartford, the retail centers of Chicago. In Washington, there are just squat buildings. In the 1890s, Congress passed the Height of Buildings Act, which effectively mandated that no DC structure could be higher than the US Capitol dome. The bottom line is that DC is not a city of skyscrapers.

If you walk around Williams & Connolly’s world in downtown DC, you’ll notice that the names on the most substantial buildings are Venable, DLA Piper, Winston & Strawn, O’Melveny & Myers, Hogan Lovells (until recently Hogan & Hartson). Each is the name of a large firm with hundreds, even thousands, of lawyers. Very few are doing anything as interesting as what you see on television dramas—flamboyant personalities are frowned upon. One of the truths about Washington-style law is that attorneys largely believe that once you’ve gone to court, you and your client have already lost. Former Secretary of Labor Raymond Donovan once asked after his acquittal on fraud charges, “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?”

On the ground floor of the Williams & Connolly building is a Così sandwich shop. A bunch of scrawny trees grow out of the concrete, and several pieces of tangled metal sculpture stand in the middle of it all. Behind the artwork is the 302,000-square-foot, 12-story office building. A five-level parking garage underneath has room for more than 320 cars. Inside the lobby are Italian-marble floors, mahogany walls, and moldings of bird’s-eye maple. The inscription over the door reads Edward Bennett Williams Building. Next to the entrance is a plaque with the name of the major tenant, which occupies the 250,000 square feet of non-retail office space, the law firm Williams & Connolly.

If there was one lawyer who epitomized Washington legal practice for the half century between 1938 and 1988, it was Edward Bennett Williams. Two major biographies have been written about him. One of them, The Man to See by Newsweek’s Evan Thomas, is held in high esteem by partners at the firm. The other, Edward Bennett Williams for the Defense by Robert Pack, is more critical and held in lesser regard—the Thomas book is the only one mentioned on the firm’s Web site.

That Williams & Connolly even has a Web site is surprising. A distinguishing characteristic of the lawyers who work in this building is that they rarely talk to reporters, even though they represent virtually every important network anchor and news-media celebrity and are ostensibly advocates for the freedom to say anything, true or false. One of the firm’s largest clients has been the National Enquirer. There was a time when not talking to reporters was considered proper for lawyers. Today not bragging about yourself is considered quaint.

Edward Bennett Williams, the founder of Williams & Connolly, died on August 13, 1988. His death came after a lengthy battle with cancer, described in detail in the Evan Thomas biography. In the days before Williams’s death, his son Tony had shown him a magazine article touting him as one of the most powerful men in Washington. Thomas says Williams replied, “They don’t realize what power really is. I’m about to see true power.”

Williams was born in Hartford, Connecticut, on May 31, 1920. His father had lost his department-store job during the Depression, but Ed Williams won a college scholarship to Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. In 1941, he came to Washington to attend Georgetown University Law School, but his studies were interrupted by the December attack on Pearl Harbor. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps and was assigned to a base in Alabama. Five months after joining, Williams was discharged. According to military records, he was such a poor pilot that he was deemed “a source of danger to his own life as well as the lives of others.”

Humiliated, Williams told his friends and family he had been injured in a crash. He returned to law school, graduating in 1944. His first job out of college was at the respected local firm Hogan & Hartson. In those days of mostly solo practitioners or two-man partnerships, an 18-lawyer firm like this one was considered large. There Williams studied under the legendary Frank Hogan. The most illustrious lawyer of his generation, Hogan hobnobbed with stars such as Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish and was a friend and adviser to President Theodore Roosevelt.

In the late 1920s, when the Harding administration’s Teapot Dome scandal broke, Hogan became, after Clarence Darrow, the nation’s most famous criminal lawyer. He was the attorney for Edward L. Doheny, the businessman accused of paying bribes to Harding’s Interior Secretary, Albert Fall, for an oil lease at the Elk Hills Petroleum Reserve in California. After his surprising acquittal in 1930, Doheny wrote Hogan a thank-you check for $1 million and had a Rolls-Royce delivered to Hogan’s house on DC’s Massachusetts Avenue.

Frank Hogan was more than Ed Williams’s role model. Williams had apparently cemented his future at Hogan & Hartson by marrying Hogan’s granddaughter Dorothy in 1946. (She died in 1959.) He adopted Hogan’s creed that you should never walk into court without knowing everything about the facts, the client, the opponent, the judge, and especially the opponent’s attorneys. With the facts and knowledge of the case as ammunition, Williams’s strategy was always to be the aggressor. Even when he was defending a client, there was little defensive about it.

In the first case he tried as a young lawyer, Williams was asked to defend a bicyclist who had knocked down and injured a pedestrian. His strategy was to accuse the pedestrian—the person who was actually hurt—of failing to get out of the way. That, in a nutshell, would be the Williams way for the rest of his life.

He originated what would become the trademark of his law firm—finding outrageous arguments to make when all else failed. In one case, when a prospective client was unable to suggest a single exculpatory or mitigating fact, for a rare moment Williams seemed uncertain what to argue in defense. “If I had a defense, I wouldn’t need you,” the client blurted.

Williams fell back on an argument that his client was ill—chronically narrow blood vessels had caused “mental deterioration.” Not even the jury bought that one, and it was a rare time when Williams lost a case.

It became a mantra of Williams & Connolly lawyers that they were brought into a case only when it was so far gone that nobody else could help. “If the case was winnable, they wouldn’t hire us,” Williams once said. In a sense, hiring a lawyer from Williams & Connolly seemed an admission that someone under investigation or indictment was pretty much doomed—or would be with any other lawyer or firm.

When he went into a trial, Williams would go into a self-proclaimed “monastic” existence. He immersed himself in his cases, refusing to see or acknowledge old friends, including the bottle, and almost refusing to eat. His goal, he said, was to use every second to learn each piece of a case. The old lawyer’s adage that you never ask a question you don’t know the answer to was never more true than when Ed Williams went into a courtroom.

Brendan Sullivan, who joined the firm in 1970 at age 28, was as natural a lawyer as Ted Williams was a baseball player.

Sullivan grew up outside Providence with a brother and two sisters. His father was general manager for sales and distribution at Philipp Brothers Chemicals and served four years as a police commissioner in the town of Warwick. He was an active member of the Rhode Island Democratic Party, a political identity he passed on to his son, who later in his career would be wrongly identified as a Republican.

In high school, Brendan was an all-prep-league linebacker in football, captain of the rifle squad, and student-body president. In his yearbook, fellow students described him: “Sully, our esteemed and occasionally fearsome Leader. He has, in effect, completely revamped the Honor system from no system at all, to an all-powerful political machine designed to give the individual student virtual autonomy.” Sullivan wasn’t voted most likely to succeed; he was named most ambitious.

He narrowed his college choices to Georgetown and Virginia’s Washington and Lee. The choice became easy when he received a letter from a dean at W&L that began, “Dear Brenda: We do not accept women.”

At Georgetown, Sullivan again gravitated to campus politics. He was elected president of his senior class. Classmates used the terms “militaristic” and “procedure freak” to describe him. Before Christmas vacation, Sullivan offered fellow New Englanders the opportunity to apply for a ride home in his immaculate eight-cylinder 1950 Packard. He required applications and other paperwork before deciding who would get the ride. “I was a little officious,” Sullivan recalls.

He graduated in 1964, before anti-war attitudes began to emerge at conservative Georgetown. Sullivan had been eyeing a career in business. Not wanting to leave Georgetown, he enrolled in law school, graduating in 1967. Rather than waiting to be drafted, he joined Army ROTC.

He was commissioned a captain in the Army Transportation Corps and was assigned to be a supply officer at Fort Mason in San Francisco, where he directed units that organized and shipped supplies to bases in South Vietnam. “My assignment was to fight the Vietnam War from San Francisco,” he says.

His roommate at Fort Mason was a young lawyer who had the job of defending an escapee from the nearby Presidio stockade. The roommate didn’t want to get involved in the case and asked if Sullivan would step into the breach. On the morning of the hearing for the arrested escapee, Sullivan drove to the austere military courtroom and was introducing himself to his client when the judicial officer entered the room and took his seat on the bench.

“They told us at law school that when somebody has been languishing in jail, you file a motion for unreasonable delay,” Sullivan once recalled. He filed a motion for dismissal on those grounds, and to everyone’s surprise it was granted. The prisoner, Richard Lee Gentile, was returned to the stockade with no additional charges.

A few days later, 27 inmates of the facility staged a sit-down strike to protest crowded conditions and the Vietnam War. Word began to circulate among the prisoners that a young miracle worker had gotten one of them off the hook. Acquittals weren’t the order of the day in military justice. One by one, the stockade inmates requested that Captain Sullivan be assigned to their defense.

With annoying persistence, Sullivan filed motion after motion for a change of venue, for suppression of evidence, for the admission of expert testimony. As each motion was denied by the base judge, Sullivan’s anger increased. He didn’t like to lose. Had his law education been a waste of time?

The military brass couldn’t understand why Sullivan wasn’t, like the other military defense lawyers, simply going through the motions. Didn’t the young attorney know that the result was preordained, that the hearing was just a show? Says Sullivan: “Well, the defendant had told me that if I didn’t get him off, he was ‘going to come looking’ for me.”

Sullivan had documentation in law for every request. He couldn’t understand the basis on which his motions were denied. The military, he’d thought, went by the book. Sullivan had the book and was demanding that the military stick by it and give his clients their rights, but that wasn’t happening. Instead, military prosecutors tried to stop Sullivan through intimidation. “It is my job to see that your stay here is quiet,” he was told by one fellow officer during a visit to the Presidio. “I’ve got men that can look through a keyhole with both eyes at the same time.” 

The editor of a progressive alternative weekly paper called Hard Times was among the first to see what the experience was doing to Sullivan. “He didn’t start out with any kind of radical outlook,” says reporter Fred Gardner, who covered the trial, “but the Presidio 27 trial opened his eyes to a lot of things.”

“Am I a crusader?” Sullivan said at the time. “Only if you believe it is wrong for a 19-year-old to go to prison. Then I am a crusader. I’m just Irish enough not to take that baloney.”

Sullivan’s actions on behalf of his clients were beginning to brand him as a radical. “This did not make me comfortable,” he says.

He was in his apartment working on a trial when the phone rang. It was the commanding officer of his unit, who told Sullivan he was being shipped off to South Vietnam by July 2, only weeks away. He was due to be released from army service on January 2. The decision to stop Sullivan by sending him overseas found itself the subject of a segment on The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.

Back in Rhode Island, Sullivan’s parents cringed as their straitlaced son became a favorite of the anti-war movement. “It was a little surreal,” Sullivan recalls. “I was on Walter Cronkite every night, and he would start the segment asking, ‘Where is Captain Sullivan tonight?’ ” Sullivan adds sarcastically, “My mother loved that.”

The New York Times published a story about the case, although it referred to the young officer as Brandon.

“I wasn’t even against the war,” Sullivan says. “I thought I was just doing my job as a lawyer.” He might not have taken their strong anti-war stance, but Senators Charles Goodell of New York and Alan Cranston of California issued a statement that “assignment to a war zone must not be used as retaliation against those who voice unpopular views or champion unpopular causes.”

Sullivan himself said, “I have never known of a case where one has only six months of active duty remaining to be shipped to Vietnam.” He also noted that the assignment came with only a week’s notice. “Usually you get 90 days,” he said, “but I have to presume good faith. Maybe I am in the vanguard of a new group.”

Finally, on the eve of his scheduled departure for Saigon, Army Secretary Stanley Resor canceled the serviceman’s orders.

“I’m probably the only lawyer in America who owes his life to the press,” Sullivan said with a smile.

By 1970, his two-year tour was over. As an attorney whom Cronkite had made to seem like an anti-war radical, Sullivan had burned his bridges to the large corporate firms. Despondent, he called one of his old Georgetown law professors, Richard Alan Gordon, and asked, “What do I do now, coach?” He told Gordon that his experiences in the San Francisco courtroom had been the most exhilarating he had ever experienced. Gordon brought up the idea of going to work for Edward Bennett Williams but presented it to Sullivan as a long shot.

“Edward Bennett Williams only takes the top 2 percent of the class from Harvard and Yale,” Gordon said with a bit of exaggeration. In fact, Williams hired lawyers from Georgetown as well as a few from Washington and Lee and the University of Virginia. Sullivan might not have been at the top of his Georgetown class—he hadn’t made law review—but he was ambitious and driven.

Despite how far-fetched it seemed, he asked Gordon to call Williams and set up an interview. Williams was in a grumpy mood when Gordon’s call went through.

“Why would I want to talk to this kid?” he said.

Gordon replied, “I just thought you might be interested in somebody who has the fighting spirit and tenacity you once had.”

Williams was furious, and there was silence on the line.

Finally, Williams spoke again, though he wasn’t happy: “Tell him the door to my office will be open Saturday night. He can come in.”

When Sullivan arrived, it was hard for Williams not to see the qualities Gordon had highlighted. Both were native New Englander and Irish Catholics. When Sullivan described his feelings about the Presidio trials, Williams felt he might be perceiving a younger version of himself. He told Sullivan he could take an office near his own, to learn from him. Sullivan called Gordon to tell him of his hiring.

“You haven’t been hired,” Gordon said disdainfully. “That has to go through a committee.”

“No, I’m hired,” Sullivan insisted. “Mr. Williams said that if it doesn’t work out, he will blame you.”

Two years later, Williams saw Gordon at a bar-association dinner. “I want to thank you for Brendan,” he said. “He is the finest young lawyer we have ever hired.”

To make sure the young lawyer didn’t get too cocky, though, Williams rarely called him by his correct name. For the rest of their time together, Sullivan was known to his boss simply as Solomon.