Former public defender still fighting the odds He represents interests of outnumbered Democrats on House judiciary panel

September 25, 1998|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- As a federal public defender in Maryland, Steven F. Reich got used to representing clients with the odds against them.

There was the Virginia man who stole $19,000 raised to buy toys for needy children and the former Baltimore trucking executive who showered campaigns of Maryland politicians with dirty money.

Now, Reich, 37, represents a different breed of underdog: the badly outnumbered Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee. As deputy chief investigative counsel for the minority, Reich's job is to pore over independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's evidence against President Clinton and represent the interests of the Democrats in determining what to do with it.

Part of an elite team of nine attorneys advising the Democrats, Reich could be playing a prominent behind-the-scenes role if the committee decides to conduct an impeachment inquiry. And so far, this lawyer's opinion sounds a lot like what the Democrats have been saying: that nothing released to the public by Starr suggests that Clinton committed a crime warranting impeachment.

"There are certainly good legal arguments to be made that there was a lie about personal sexual behavior," said Reich. "But there's no clear evidence of any obstructive behavior or witness tampering beyond that."

As a lawyer representing members of Congress -- and not the president -- Reich said his job is not to help Clinton survive, but to ensure a judicious investigative process. He complained that the Republican majority has pushed the investigation ahead far too quickly. He protested that lawyers were not given enough time to digest Starr's reams of evidence before it was thrown into the public eye.

"We're being asked to make decisions that affect many innocent people's lives with little time to reflect," he said, looking fatigued after yet another 14-hour day. "Why are we putting documents out there when we don't even know what we're going to do?"

Reich brings to this job a credo that has served him for 12 years as a criminal defense attorney. "There are people out there who do bad things, but we are in a system that requires advocacy on both sides," he said, sitting in a conference room next to the Judiciary Committee's chambers. "My job is to represent them and make sure that if the government gets a conviction, they do it the right way."

As an assistant federal public defender in Greenbelt from 1994 ++ until his arrival on Capitol Hill in June, Reich often defended individuals whose conduct clearly violated some moral codes. That didn't matter to him. He was most interested in demonstrating when the government fell short of proving the conduct was illegal.

Lawyers explained that a federal public defender can't be judged in terms of winning or losing -- because they almost always lose. And Reich did.

His clients included Brian Davis, a Baltimore trucking executive who had donated heavily to the campaigns of Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, and who ultimately pleaded guilty last year to bank fraud in connection with those contributions.

Also last year, Reich represented Lester Thomas, an Arlington, Va., man convicted of stealing money collected by Marine Corps officials for the Toys for Tots program.

'A respect for the minority'

Growing up in New Rochelle, N.Y., an upscale suburb of New York City, Reich said his passion for representing indigent clients was inspired by his father, a Jewish immigrant from Austria who fled the Holocaust. "That in a large part explains why I became a criminal defense lawyer," Reich said. "Just having a respect for the minority, and a concern about how a minority group could be tyrannized."

In another of his high-profile cases, Reich represented the American Civil Liberties Union in taking up the cause of Ronald W. Price, an Anne Arundel County high school teacher convicted of sexually abusing three students. Reich argued before the state Court of Appeals in 1994 that Price should be allowed to tell his story to a Hollywood movie producer -- contending that individuals should be able to write about and profit from their ideas, even if the ideas are reproachable.

The court ruled in Reich's favor, overturning a law that barred convicted criminals from profiting from their crimes.

'In a gentle manner'

With his boyish smile and lingering New York accent, Reich looks nothing like the typical Washington insider -- even in his conservative, navy pin-striped suit.

Judges and fellow attorneys portray him as a quiet, but enormously bright and skillful lawyer who will attack any hole in a prosecutor's case. "He's very intelligent and very persuasive, in a gentle manner," said Chief Judge J. Frederick Motz of the U.S. District Court for Maryland.

He therefore emerges as a stark contrast to Abbe D. Lowell, the 46-year-old leader of the minority's legal defense team who is widely described as outspoken and flamboyant.

For now, Reich spends most of his time either in the committee's conference room reviewing documents or at his desk, tucked behind a big jug of spring water in a cramped corner of a fifth-floor room in the Ford House Office Building.

He worries that he has become part of a process that could leave a dangerous legacy.

"What have we come to as a society when we are talking about taking action against the president of the United States based on his personal sex conduct?" Reich asked. "Who in this world will want to run for office if these are the standards we now apply?"

He answered the second question himself: "Only people with no real-life experiences."

Pub Date: 9/25/98

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