News & Politics

A.B. Culvahouse: The Man Who Vetted Sarah Palin

After spending years in the most powerful circles of Washington, the former White House counsel is likely to be remembered most for a single decision: greenlighting Sarah Palin

Illustration by David M. Brinley

The walls of A.B. Culvahouse Jr.’s office are the only remarkable things in it. For a corner perch on the tenth floor of a modern downtown DC building, the space is understated. Surely the man who occupies it—a former White House counsel and the chairman of the international law firm O’Melveny & Myers—deserves something larger and nicer.

But the mementos on the walls are impressive. One photo shows Culvahouse during his first day on the job at the White House with President Ronald Reagan. Another shows him in the Oval Office with Reagan, Vice President George H.W. Bush, and Reagan chief of staff Howard Baker. Culvahouse says he’s not supposed to have that one—it’s an original print of the meeting that took place the day former national-security adviser John Poindexter testified about his role in the Iran-Contra affair.

There are framed thank-you notes from some of the high-profile figures Culvahouse has helped through vetting and confirmation processes, an area that has become a specialty of his since he left the White House. Supreme Court justice David Souter, now retired, sent along his words of appreciation after he was confirmed to the high court with Culvahouse’s assistance. Current Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote a thank-you after Culvahouse helped Gates become George H.W. Bush’s CIA director.

There is, however, a notable omission.

Few people outside the Beltway had heard of Culvahouse before the 2008 presidential election, when the Republican nominee, Arizona senator John McCain, asked him to vet his vice-presidential contenders. There isn’t a shred of evidence on the walls that would indicate the role Culvahouse played in launching the national career of McCain’s choice, Alaska governor turned queen of the Tea Party Sarah Palin.

Nothing here would indicate that only 2½ years ago, Culvahouse was on the phone in the conference room next door, interviewing Palin until 3 am Washington time to determine whether she would be a suitable running mate.

It was from that conference room that Culvahouse asked Palin, who was in Arizona, what he calls “the stock questions”: Why did she want to be Vice President? Was she prepared to use nuclear weapons in defense of the American homeland? If we had Osama bin Laden in our sights but taking the shot guaranteed civilian casualties, would she give the go-ahead?

Though Culvahouse won’t reveal Palin’s specific responses, he says he was reassured by them.

“She gave a very thoughtful answer to all those questions. People who are more experienced, more savvy—maybe some of them gave less savvy answers,” he says with a look that indicates he’s referring to some of McCain’s other VP contenders.

There was more: “On the phone, it was clear she had a personality that fills the room. A certain aura about her.”

Culvahouse sensed then the charisma that would propel Palin into folk-hero status among the Republican base and allow her to lead a new movement composed predominantly of white, working-class social conservatives—the Tea Party.

Palin’s influence was crystallized last fall during the midterm elections when her endorsements of extreme social conservatives such as Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell and Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle helped them oust more mainstream Republicans in the primaries. Rightly or wrongly, GOP leaders have since cast blame on Palin for costing them control of the Senate in the November election.

Culvahouse, of course, couldn’t have predicted how far that “aura” would carry Palin.

By the time Culvahouse spoke on the phone with then-governor Palin in the early morning of August 28, 2008, the political forces were already in motion. Later that day, Barack Obama, the freshman senator from Illinois, was rallying 84,000 faithful at Denver’s Invesco Field during the final night of the Democratic National Convention.

The Republican campaign needed to announce a running mate the next day. McCain’s closest advisers, Rick Davis and Steve Schmidt, were encouraging the candidate to consider Palin. The campaign was convinced it needed gender diversity, given how well Barack Obama was polling among women.

It may have been too late for Culvahouse to make much of a difference, and unlike Davis and Schmidt, he wasn’t there to dole out political advice. His primary job was to vet the financial and legal records of the vice-presidential hopefuls and to uncover anything that could embarrass the campaign.

Still, the interview was a critical final hurdle for Palin. And despite discussing Palin’s daughter Bristol’s pregnancy and the ongoing investigation into the scandal that would come to be called Troopergate, Culvahouse—with his nearly four decades of Washington experience—says he was satisfied.

Two other lawyers—O’Melveny partner Robert Rizzi and one of the firm’s former attorneys, Ted Frank—were in the room with Culvahouse during that phone call.

Frank, who by that time had left the firm and was working at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, sums up Palin’s performance: “This was somebody who very definitely charmed A.B. Culvahouse. And A.B. Culvahouse, I don’t think, is somebody who is easily charmed.” 

Next: A career as a behind-the-scenes Washington player.

Like Palin, Culvahouse loves the outdoors. He hunts birds, and friends say he’s a great shot. When he can, he spends weekends away from his Alexandria home at his second place in the Northern Neck of Virginia, where he likes to catch rockfish.

Named after his father, Arthur Boggess, Culvahouse was born on the Fourth of July 1948 in Ten Mile, Tennessee, halfway between Knoxville and Chattanooga. His Southern roots are detectable when he says words like July, which he pronounces “Joo-ly.”

He grew up on a working farm, where his daily responsibility was to feed the hogs and cattle. With about 3,000 residents, Ten Mile—like Palin’s hometown of Wasilla, Alaska—was the kind of place where all the neighbors knew your business.

The similarities end there. While Palin tweets and Facebook-updates her way into the daily news cycle, starred in a reality-TV series, and offers on-air insight as a Fox News commentator, Culvahouse prefers to stay in the background.

He has been a lifelong Republican but decided early on that a career as an elected politician wasn’t for him. He was involved with Gerald Ford’s primary campaign in 1976, and in 1978 he helped his mentor and first boss out of law school, then–Tennessee senator Howard Baker, win a third term. Two years later, Culvahouse worked on Baker’s unsuccessful presidential bid. Those experiences were enough to convince him he wanted no part in running for office himself.

Instead, he has cultivated a career as a behind-the-scenes Washington player—just the kind of Beltway insider Palin and her Tea Partyers rail against.

It takes the right connections to get from Ten Mile to a corner office in one of DC’s top law firms, and Culvahouse displayed an early talent for developing them.

His first foray into Washington was as Howard Baker’s legislative assistant and counsel, a job he landed the year he graduated from New York University School of Law in 1973. Another Tennessee Republican and former Baker aide, current senator Lamar Alexander, found Culvahouse the job.

Culvahouse had met Alexander when he was an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee and Alexander—then in local politics—appeared at a school event. The two struck up a conversation, and Alexander encouraged Culvahouse to consider NYU for law school because of the university’s Root-Tilden scholarship, which was awarded to applicants around the country to attract out-of-state students.

Culvahouse—who had never been to New York—followed the advice and won the scholarship, which covered tuition and room and board. “For a farmer’s son whose father made it very clear that law school was on me, it was very attractive,” he says.

He and Alexander formed a close friendship, and ultimately Alexander got him the interview with Baker.

Baker already had offered Culvahouse the Capitol Hill job when the Senate Watergate Committee was formed, and Baker became its ranking member. Given the intensity of the investigation into the Watergate burglary, Culvahouse worried that the senator would decide he needed someone with more experience.

But Baker’s offer stood. By the Monday after law-school finals, Culvahouse’s NYU buddies turned on the TV and saw him sitting behind the senator at the Watergate hearings.

“I had great confidence in him,” says Baker, who remains a close friend and counselor to Culvahouse. “I still do.”

On a Friday evening months later, Baker was invited to the White House to discuss the possible compromise between the Senate committee and President Richard Nixon about accessing the now infamous Watergate tapes. Special prosecutor Archibald Cox had subpoenaed Nixon for the tapes, which were recordings of conversations between the President and his aides made around the time of the Watergate break-in, and Nixon had declined to turn them over. Culvahouse was the most senior aide left in Baker’s office that night, so Baker asked him to tag along.

“It was my first time in the Oval Office,” says Culvahouse.

It also was an early lesson on the value of discretion in Washington.

There was Culvahouse, less than a year out of law school, witnessing a key moment in the Watergate saga. The compromise being discussed—in which Nixon offered to let then-senator John Stennis review and summarize the tapes instead of turning them over to investigators—was refused by Cox and eventually led to his firing and the so-called “Saturday-night massacre” that hastened Nixon’s fall.

The ability to keep secrets, to resist the urge to talk about such a White House experience, is a prized quality in this town.

A secret-keeper is what the McCain campaign wanted when the time came to find a running mate after the senator locked up the GOP nomination in the Texas primary in March 2008.

For McCain and his campaign manager, Rick Davis, Culvahouse was the obvious choice to lead the vetting operation.

“I have never heard of any breach of confidentiality that was agreed to by A.B.,” says McCain, who met Culvahouse while they were both serving on the Board of Visitors of the US Naval Academy more than 20 years ago.

Culvahouse was an early supporter of McCain. He helped raise money and personally gave $5,000 to McCain’s political-action committee in December 2007, just before the New Hampshire primary.

“He assisted the senator in the hard days when very few people thought he had a chance and the senator was carrying his own luggage,” says Trevor Potter, who was general counsel of the 2008 McCain campaign.

Even when Fred Thompson—a friend of Culvahouse’s since they worked together on the Senate Watergate Committee—got in the race, Culvahouse didn’t waver.

“I thought that Senator McCain’s positions and thinking about the Iraq War and Afghanistan were on the money, so I signed up,” says Culvahouse.

During the primaries, Rick Davis asked Culvahouse if he would get involved beyond a fundraising role. Culvahouse said that if McCain won the nomination, maybe he could assist with vetting vice-presidential contenders.

McCain was superstitious about clinching the nomination, so he wasn’t prepared to talk about running mates until he was absolutely sure he’d need one. Culvahouse didn’t hear anything more about it from the campaign and assumed he was off the hook.

Then, during a press conference after the Texas primary, McCain was asked who would lead his vetting process. In the impulsive manner that came to define McCain’s presidential bid, his answer was Culvahouse. That was news to the Washington lawyer.

“Let me be clear—I never suggested that I do it,” Culvahouse recalls. “I suggested that I help. But there we were.”

Next: Meeting with McCain.

Culvahouse flew to New York to meet with Davis and McCain. They discussed the vetting strategy over dinner. Culvahouse says two rules were established: No one would get on the list of contenders without McCain’sapproval, and no one would get off unless McCain wanted that person off.

Culvahouse wanted to run the vetting from his law firm, O’Melveny & Myers, as a separate operation from the campaign, which was developing a reputation for public infighting. That way, if there were any leaks, the culprit would be within arm’s reach.

He assembled a team of about 30 lawyers. All either practiced at O’Melveny or were trusted alumni of the firm.

“That is an unusual model,” notes Potter, a former Federal Election Commission chairman who has also been counsel to other campaigns, including McCain’s 2000 presidential bid and George H.W. Bush’s 1988 run.

Photograph of A.B. Culvahouse by Stephen Voss

Secrecy was so paramount to Culvahouse, Davis, and McCain that relying on a single law firm was viewed as the best approach. And though dozens of lawyers were on the vetting team, as an extra precaution Davis communicated only with Culvahouse. “To maintain a real thin layer of information running back and forth, I never dealt with anyone else,” Davis says.

After Palin was chosen, the campaign’s obsessive efforts to prevent leaks came under fire as details—such as the fact that the vetting team hadn’t gone to Alaska to interview locals and dig through the archives of Palin’s hometown newspaper—surfaced.

Asked whether, in hindsight, prioritizing secrecy over a more thorough local investigation was the right decision, Culvahouse avoids a direct answer: “In vetting, that’s always a tradeoff that you make. With the other people on the short list, we had similar difficult calls to make. In a small state or a small town, it’s even more acute.”

Culvahouse began with a list of 26 possibilities given to him by the campaign. He organized his team into five or so smaller groups, assigning VP contenders to each of the sub-teams.

“I was assigned a couple of the more obscure candidates,” says Ted Frank, the former O’Melveny lawyer who would later listen in as Culvahouse interviewed Palin by phone. “It’s kind of ironic that the two I was assigned, [Senator Joseph] Lieberman and Palin, turned out to be such high-profile candidates.”

The process for the 26 on the long list was blind—none of them knew they were under consideration. Culvahouse’s operation relied solely on public databases to research their backgrounds and write 40-to-50-page reports about each.

Once the campaign narrowed the list to five names, the process became much more intensive. The people on the short list—Lieberman, Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Florida governor Charlie Crist—had personal interviews with Culvahouse and responded to 74 written questions, which he had formulated.

Some questions were tailored to each candidate. Prior to sending the questionnaires and conducting the interviews, Culvahouse corresponded with either the lawyer or the accountant of each contender to parse legal and financial histories. Once he had this information, he determined what issues required questioning.

Palin was added to the short list late in the game, meaning Culvahouse and his team had to condense this process into a few days, whereas they’d had months for the other five people.

Lieberman had been the presumed frontrunner, though discontent in the Republican base about his pro-choice stance on abortion was troublesome. Culvahouse also had uncovered a potential legal problem in picking someone who wasn’t a Republican. Several states have “sore loser” statutes that don’t allow for bipartisan tickets. Putting the independent Lieberman on the ticket raised the specter of a possible trip to the Supreme Court if McCain were to pick him, and no one wanted that.

As the clock was running out, Davis says McCain asked to have at least one woman on the short list. His advisers went back to the long list and plucked out Palin’s name. “I recommended Sarah to the senator to look at amongst the other finalists,” says Davis.

Did Culvahouse balk at the time crunch? “No,” says McCain. “He’s very capable.” Frank seconds the assertion that if Culvahouse was feeling any stress, he didn’t show it.

It fell to Frank to write a final vetting report about Palin before Culvahouse’s personal interview with her. In just about 43 hours, Frank produced 40 to 45 pages about the governor from Alaska. His main concern was an ongoing ethics investigation into Palin’s dismissal of Walt Monegan, Alaska’s public-safety commissioner. Monegan had speculated that Palin’s decision was tied to his reluctance to fire a state trooper who was the governor’s former brother-in-law. The media later dubbed the affair Troopergate.

“It was understood that you don’t pick somebody who has this sort of investigation hanging over their head,” Frank explains. “No matter how thoroughly you investigated, there’s no way to know if there’s an e-mail sitting somewhere that somebody could say is a smoking gun.” Frank says that concern was conveyed to the campaign.

Though Frank wrote the report, Culvahouse was involved in it. He reviewed drafts and was kept apprised of the major issues that surfaced.

Palin disclosed details, such as her husband’s DUI arrest, in the questionnaire she returned to Culvahouse. She divulged Bristol Palin’s pregnancy during the phone interview.

“I asked her how she thought her daughter’s pregnancy would play out politically,” says Culvahouse. “She says, ‘That’s for smarter people than me to figure out. I don’t know.’ ”

Culvahouse says he found the response impressive: “She had a very good sense of her strengths and weaknesses. I mean, she knew what she didn’t know.”

Frank sat in on the interview because he had led the research into Palin’s background and knew the details of her history. O’Melveny & Myers partner Robert Rizzi, former chairman of the firm’s tax practice, was there because he had reviewed her tax returns. Culvahouse led the interview, but both men also asked questions.

In a speech to the Republican National Lawyers Association in April 2009, Culvahouse said vetting McCain’s vice-presidential candidates was something he had “been preparing all of my life to do.” He described how he had helped Senator Howard Baker when President Gerald Ford considered him as his running mate. And as White House counsel to Reagan from 1987 to 1989, Culvahouse led the office that vetted an estimated 200 presidential nominees during those two years. In his private law practice, he has represented more than 20 Cabinet-level or deputy Cabinet-level nominees of the Bill Clinton and both Bush administrations.

But none of those efforts came under the kind of scrutiny that Culvahouse’s role in putting Palin on the 2008 Republican presidential ticket did.

Next: Sarah Palin—High Risk, High . . . Reward?

After McCain announced the choice the morning after Obama gave his speech at the Democratic National Convention, the media scrambled to find out more about Palin. The campaign was bombarded with questions it couldn’t answer, such as whether McCain had known Bristol Palin was pregnant.

Though Culvahouse’s team had the answers, the vetting operation was under such a tight seal, per Davis’s orders, that the information hadn’t been disseminated to most of the campaign staffers. When McCain’s press aides either couldn’t respond or gave incorrect responses to reporters about Palin, the public perception became that she hadn’t been properly vetted.

Campaign aides are quick to come to Culvahouse’s defense. “It was not A.B.’s fault,” says Potter, the campaign’s general counsel. “A.B. and his team knew everything.”

Frank says he has revisited the final report he wrote about Palin many times since the campaign to double-check that all the potential problems with her had been addressed. He says they had been. Frank also describes how the vetting team tried to make her shortcomings clear to McCain’s political advisers.

In reviewing Palin’s television appearances, the vetters came across an interview with Charlie Rose that concerned them. In it, Palin dodged a question about education policy, instead focusing her answer on energy.

“We said, ‘This is where Palin is in terms of her interviewing, and in the context of a vice-presidential campaign, there’s going to be a lot of scrutiny,’ ” says Frank. “The response from the campaign was ‘We loved her appearance on Charlie Rose.’ ”

While it’s undisputed that Culvahouse wasn’t asked to recommend one candidate over another and that his duty was to present the upsides and downsides of each contender objectively, McCain ultimately did ask for his final judgment about Palin.

Culvahouse’s response was that selecting her would be “high risk, high reward.”

More than two years later, sitting in the same O’Melveny & Myers conference room from which he interviewed Palin, Culvahouse chooses his words carefully as he attempts to explain what he meant. His forehead creases as he stares down at the marble table.

“Well, high reward . . . .” His voice trails off. The room is silent for eight long seconds. “I mentioned that her . . . .” Five more seconds tick by.

Finally, Culvahouse offers: “She had an engaging personality.”

He continues: “We didn’t have to push her really hard.” He says she would say, “Here’s what you should really ask me is why I went to so many schools.”

Culvahouse says, “I would start out trying to be gentle, and she would just go right there.”

Culvahouse says her “thoughtful” answers to his stock questions were another part of the “high reward” aspect of choosing her, as was her public-service ethic and his sense that she would energize the Republican base.

Now he tries to address the other part of the question. “The high risk really was . . . .” Seven quiet seconds pass. Then: “Her résumé was thin.”

But unlike Frank, Culvahouse doesn’t assign blame to the campaign. He doesn’t pull out examples of instances where he raised red flags.

Instead, noting his assessment that few vice-presidential picks are ever truly ready to be President, he says he told McCain: “She will not be ready on January 20, but she has the smarts to get there.”

Finding McCain a running mate wasn’t the only matter weighing on Culvahouse. At the same time, he was facing pressure at his law firm, where four other partners were challenging his chairmanship.

Governance structures at major law firms vary. O’Melveny & Myers follows a model similar to that of a corporation, with Culvahouse essentially acting as CEO. The firm has a policy committee, with 12 partners representing different offices and practices, that’s similar to a board of directors. Each of O’Melveny’s 14 offices also has a managing partner who oversees the administrative functions of the particular location.

In 2008, Culvahouse had been the leader of the firm for eight years, and during the last election for chair in 2004 he ran unopposed. Since then, the firm’s profits had stalled and some rainmakers had left. Much of the partnership felt it was time for a change.

Before Culvahouse was first elected head of O’Melveny in 2000, the firm had been governed by a management committee, which was led by a committee chair and made decisions by consensus. But by 2000, the firm was lagging far behind its competitors, and its partners agreed they needed a single leader of the entire firm to make the tough calls necessary to reinvigorate profits. They chose Culvahouse, who had been managing partner in Washington, which was viewed as one of the firm’s most successful offices.

Culvahouse led the firm’s first Office of the Chair, a powerful administrative body that included two vice chairs, an assistant to the chairman, and several other administrative positions, to support him. The 12-partner policy committee was installed to have a voice in decision-making. But Culvahouse had the final say.

Culvahouse made some difficult decisions, such as raising the hourly rates charged by some lawyers. At the same time, the firm was overhauling its compensation system. Under the previous system, partners got lockstep pay increases as they rose in seniority. Now compensation would be merit-based, meaning partners would have to generate business if they wanted a raise.

Within Culvahouse’s first three years as chair, the average O’Melveny partner went from making $705,000 a year to making nearly $1.3 million. O’Melveny had matched or beaten its biggest competitors in profitability.

But the firm’s strategic plan—which was not solely Culvahouse’s vision and had the backing of the policy committee—included another objective: to grow the firm’s transactional practice and its New York office. O’Melveny was founded in Los Angeles, where it still has its largest office, and is known primarily as a litigation shop. Emphasizing New York City and Wall Street–generated corporate work would involve shifting the traditional focus of the firm. The idea was that a larger presence in the transactional arena would attract major clients that would help feed the litigation department.

The intention was sound—and not novel. Large firms based outside of New York have been trying to break into the Manhattan legal market for decades. But it was the way Culvahouse did it that many former partners say was a critical mistake.

Next: Culvahouse first earns his keep in the Reagan administration.

In some respects, the institution Culvahouse inherited in 2000 when he became head of his law firm was similar to the situation he found himself in when he became White House counsel in 1987.

Both institutions were in trouble, and in both cases Culvahouse was responsible for digging them out.

He was vacationing in Cancún with law-school friends when he got the phone call from the White House. Reagan’s chief of staff, Donald Regan, had resigned, and the President had tapped Howard Baker to replace him. Baker accepted the position, but he had one request. He wanted to bring on Culvahouse as White House counsel. Reagan had never met Culvahouse, but he agreed.

By the time Culvahouse arrived at his office on the second floor of the White House, the Iran-Contra investigations were heating up and Reagan’s presidency was on the line.

Baker gave Culvahouse a mandate. “He looked at me and he says, ‘We’re going to survive Iran-Contra if we deserve to,’ ” Culvahouse recalls. “ ‘You don’t want to be the first White House counsel to have your client convicted in an impeachment trial in the US Senate.’ ”

The Reagan administration had fallen behind in its response to the independent counsel and congressional probes into the scandal. Reagan and other officials had secretly orchestrated arms deals with Iran. But the big question plaguing investigators was whether Reagan had known funds from those sales had been diverted to support a group of Nicaraguan rebels, the Contras. Though the President had volunteered to produce documents, his administration had been slow in doing so. Culvahouse was deluged with complaints from the investigators.

He needed to get organized, and he needed manpower. Culvahouse recruited William Lytton, a friend he’d made during his Senate days, to head a team of lawyers devoted to Iran-Contra. They staffed the team with attorneys, secretaries, and analysts from various federal agencies who had the necessary security clearances to review the Iran-Contra documents.

Culvahouse, Lytton, and Baker began having meetings with Reagan in the Oval Office three times a week to talk through documents and to formulate the White House’s responses to the investigators.

These responses were crucial. “Any minor misstep would be blown hugely out of proportion,” says Lytton, now senior counsel at the law firm Dechert.

Culvahouse acted as a liaison to Capitol Hill, a role that Reagan’s press secretary at the time, Marlin Fitzwater, says he was ideal for given his experience on the Hill. “He knew how to talk to them and what their needs were,” says Fitzwater. “He could interact with members of Congress in ways that most legal-counsel people aren’t able to.”

The turning point came when Reagan’s former national-security adviser John Poindexter said under oath that Reagan hadn’t known about the diversion of funds from the Iran arms sales to the Contras.

Reagan’s presidency survived, and Culvahouse emerged as one of the President’s most trusted aides.

The legacy he’ll leave behind at O’Melveny isn’t so clearly defined.

In 2002, Culvahouse found a merger partner in New York. O’Sullivan was an 85-lawyer boutique firm with a transactional practice focused on private-equity clients. Acquiring those lawyers would boost the head count in O’Melveny & Myers’s New York office from 114 lawyers to 199. The O’Sullivan attorneys would also bring new Wall Street clients, such as Apollo Investment Corporation.

Former partners, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, say the merger was billed as a way for the existing O’Melveny lawyers to access new business opportunities. The combination required—and received—approval of two-thirds of the partnership.

It was soon apparent that the O’Sullivan lawyers had a different approach. Partners who have left since the merger describe the O’Sullivan lawyers as uncooperative about sharing client work and much more focused on the bottom line.

Some of O’Sullivan’s top partners, including its chairman at the time, John Suydam—who has since left O’Melveny—were given three-year pay guarantees of $3 million a year. When the private-equity market went into a slump shortly after the merger and the O’Sullivan lawyers weren’t meeting expectations, some original O’Melveny lawyers began to question their compensation.

Next: Standing by the New York merger.

Culvahouse says it’s typical in such a merger—where a smaller firm forgoes its own compensation model to integrate into the larger firm’s system—to guarantee pay to new partners.

Still, the O’Sullivan partners’ big paydays bred resentment in New York, where there was a feeling among some heritage O’Melveny lawyers that Culvahouse favored the new additions. The situation worsened when Suydam left in 2006, causing some former O’Sullivan partners to worry about their future at the firm now that their leader would no longer be there to advocate for them. To reassure these partners, Culvahouse says, their compensation guarantees were extended.

One former partner says the pay extensions heightened the impression that the O’Sullivan attorneys were little more than “highwaymen not committed to the firm but only in it for the money.”

One former O’Sullivan partner who no longer works at O’Melveny says he understands the resentment: “We sort of had a certain swagger and self-confidence. We were also the new toy on the block. We got more attention.”

Though the ex-partner stresses that the combination was successful in securing some new clients for O’Melveny, he says generally the endeavor failed: “Is that a healthy, functioning office in New York? I think you’d be hard pressed to say that.”

O’Melveny began to hemorrhage lawyers. Today the firm has 137 attorneys in New York, down from 199 after the merger.

Though New York has suffered, O’Melveny’s Washington office has remained relatively strong, attracting high-profile new talent, such as former DC US Attorney Kenneth Wainstein, Securities and Exchange Commission deputy director Marty Dunn, and former assistant to the solicitor general Sri Srinivasan.

Culvahouse stands by the New York merger. He points out that Apollo and Bank of America, both among the firm’s largest clients, can be traced to the union with O’Sullivan.

But by 2008, when he was seeking a third term as chairman, former partners say, it was clear to them that the New York strategy had been a failure.

“A.B. put a lot of his personal capital into trying to build that New York office,” says one. “It hasn’t worked out.”

The perception of the Office of the Chair also had changed. It was no longer seen as something needed to steer the firm. Some felt that it—and Culvahouse—had become too insular and detached from the rest of the firm. Partners also questioned the overhead expenses involved in paying the administrative staff in the office.

Unlike during his previous run for chair, Culvahouse faced a battle in 2008. His opponents for the chairmanship included three partners based in O’Melveny’s California offices and one partner—John Beisner—from Washington.

Beisner has since moved to the firm Skadden, Arps and didn’t respond to requests for an interview. But several of his former colleagues say that in the years after the O’Sullivan merger, Beisner questioned Culvahouse’s decision-making on matters such as compensation of the O’Sullivan lawyers and administrative expenses in the Office of the Chair.

The two men started out as friends, but by 2008 descriptions of their relationship ranged from “very challenged” to “a demilitarized zone.”

Beisner ran hard against Culvahouse for the chairmanship. At the end of the race, there wasn’t a decisive winner. The 12-partner policy committee—which, after seeking input from all partners, ultimately chooses the firm chair and sends the choice to the full partnership for ratification—spent months on a compromise.

Finally, it decided to reinstate Culvahouse but with policy changes. The Office of the Chair was dissolved, and a “strategy committee” was created with Beisner as one of its heads. The role was meant to give Beisner a voice in firm decisions.

Apparently not satisfied, Beisner—who had been a significant rainmaker for O’Melveny—left for Skadden less than a year later. Culvahouse’s only comment on the matter is that Beisner is “a very fine lawyer.”

Culvahouse has two years left as firm chair, and given that he’s approaching O’Melveny’s mandatory retirement age of 65, he won’t seek another term.

Though he had prevailed in the chairmanship fight, Culvahouse’s work for the McCain campaign was ongoing. His obligation to the campaign was supposed to be only to vet the VP candidates, but after Palin was selected, the Troopergate scandal required Culvahouse’s attention. He amassed resources to help Palin’s local lawyers respond to the legal and press inquiries.

Culvahouse never actually set foot in Alaska during the campaign, but he dispatched Brian Brooks, managing partner of O’Melveny & Myers’s Washington office, along with Ted Frank to Alaska to advise on Troopergate.

Culvahouse joined in phone calls with them and Sarah and Todd Palin to decide how to handle the Alaska state Senate investigation. They had to strike a balance. If Palin came off as too defensive, it could appear she had something to hide. The legal team couldn’t prevent the scandal from dogging the campaign until the end.

The Palins decided against cooperating with the Alaska state Senate inquiry, though they did cooperate with another investigation by the state personnel board. That probe began after Palin filed an ethics complaint against herself with the board in an effort to overshadow the state senate’s inquiry.

The campaign depicted the whole ordeal as a partisan witch hunt. The state Senate probe determined that, although Palin had acted within her authority as governor when she reassigned Monegan, she had abused her power by trying to get her former brother-in-law, the state trooper, fired.

Palin characterized the investigation’s findings as clearing her of any wrongdoing. The media didn’t buy it.

Just as he couldn’t have predicted the kind of political phenomenon Palin would become, Culvahouse also couldn’t have known that for all of his years and accomplishments in Washington, vetting Palin would be what finally brought him—one of the city’s great secret-keepers and behind-the-scenes players—out of obscurity.

His enthusiasm about Palin has waned since the vetting days. Reached by phone the same December week that she went to Haiti, with a Fox News crew in tow, Culvahouse did what so many Republicans have done recently when asked if they’d support Palin in a 2012 run for the White House: He didn’t answer the question.

“I respect Governor Palin,” said Culvahouse. “But I would have to see, first, if she runs and, second, how serious her campaign is.”

Political-donation disclosures show that since 2008 he has donated to the political-action committee of Tim Pawlenty, another VP short-lister from the 2008 campaign and possible GOP presidential candidate in 2012. His vote of confidence in Pawlenty is significant because Culvahouse’s work vetting those rising stars three years ago means it’s likely no one in the Republican establishment has better insight into the potential pitfalls of many of the possible 2012 candidates. He has not donated to Palin. Culvahouse, it seems, is charmed no longer.

This article first appeared in the March 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.

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Senior Editor

Marisa M. Kashino joined Washingtonian in 2009 and was a senior editor until 2022.