April 1, 2005

Strassberg '85 Comments On White Collar Crime

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The criminal charges against Martha Stewart, the Enron scandal and charges of security law violations by accounting firm Arthur Anderson are all among recent white collar criminal law cases that have garnered media attention in recent years. As part of the fifth annual Korn lecture, white collar crime lawyer Richard M. Strassberg ’85 spoke at the Cornell law school yesterday. Strassberg has been on the front lines of many of these high-profile cases.

The annual Korn lecture is made possible by Cornell alum Henry H. Korn ’68, currently a partner in LePatner and Associates in New York City. The annual talk is intended to introduce the audience, many of whom are current Cornell law students, to people who have chosen to embark on various careers in law.

“The people who come here to speak are fascinating people who do fascinating things,” Korn said.

“We are very happy to have this year’s speaker. Richard Strassberg has been involved in a lot of high profile cases,” said Stacy Wiley, Associate Director for Career Services at the law school.

Korn spoke briefly about this year’s speaker.

“Richard and I met not as colleagues, but as adversaries in a court hall in 1996,” he recounted. Strassberg, a well known white collar criminal defense lawyer, most recently represented former Merrill Lynch broker Peter Bacanovic, a co-defendant in the Martha Stewart criminal case. He is currently a partner in the litigation department at Goodwin Proctor LLP and is chair of its White Collar Crime & Government Investigations Practice.

In a talk titled “From Cornell to the Courthouse: Representing High Profile Clients in Criminal Cases,” Strassberg spoke about the many challenges and pressures surrounding high profile cases. In particular, Strassberg spoke about the role the media played in many of these cases, and the challenges stemming from dealing with the press when defending a “super-celebrity” client.

Recounting his experiences when defending Bacanovic, Strassberg said, “the Martha Stewart case was one like few others. It generated so much public interest … other cases pale in comparison to the [public] scrutiny, which is part of the everyday life of a lawyer in high profile cases.”

According to Strassberg, many facts and circumstances surrounding the trial were distorted by the media.

“Martha Stewart was not convicted and not charged with insider trading [of her ImClone stocks],” Strassberg reiterated, although much of the public perceives this to be the case because of the way the trial was played out in the media and popular press. “The case was not about insider trading, but whether she lied to those who she talked to in the government.”

Strassberg said that the media simply “wanted to portray Martha Stewart, the ‘icon of home living,’ as guilty of a crime.”

In addition, Stewart was not the only defendant in the trial, and ultimately, though Bacanovic was sentenced to serve a five-month criminal sentence for lying to federal investigators, he was acquitted of six of the eight offenses with which he was initially charged.

Strassberg spoke of the difficulty of upholding the “staple of basic criminal jurisprudence,” saying: “We are innocent until proven guilty: the bedrock of our system” in high profile cases that come to the attention of the U.S. government.

“There is a double standard,” Strassberg said, when such cases come to the attention of the government. “These cases will not be treated the same way [as other cases]. The prosecution is sensitive to the media. They know that they are often perceived as being soft on the rich, on the powerful. People in the limelight provide the opportunity to send a deterrent message.”

In a development in the Bacanovic case that “was so unbelievable it could only be true” the government even put an expert on the stand who was later convicted of perjury in lying about laboratory tests and methods. This same expert’s testimony was supposed to be used to undermine the defense.

Strassberg himself has had to deal with an extraordinary amount of media attention when representing high profile clients. He recounted one incident when he was “hunted down” by television anchor Greta Van Susteren while vacationing with friends at the Hamptons.

“It is tempting to exploit [media] attention,” he advised those in the audience, “but in then end, you have to ask, ‘is it going to help the client?’ and not fall into the trap.”

Strassberg spoke briefly about the early years of his law career, as he recounted his dislike for public speaking, and his rewarding experience clerking for a magistrate after law school. From an initial fear of raising his hand in tort class, to his present career as a high profile criminal lawyer, Strassberg emphasized to his audience, “Things change; a career in law will give you a lot of opportunities.”

Archived article by Samira Chandwani
Sun Staff Writer