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Word Blossom

Karl Rove's lawyer screws up.

In at least one Washington law firm this July, the summer associates are earning their keep. Their boss is one of the lawyers involved with the Rove- Plame scandal, and he’s keeping them busy with a surprisingly thorny task: Tracking the public comments of Robert Luskin, Karl Rove’s attorney. Over the last two weeks, Luskin has flummoxed Washington’s Fourth Estate with spin and legalisms. He has embarrassed reporters who ran with the cleverly worded denials he dished out. He has contradicted himself, sometimes within the same news article. He may have accidentally paved the way for Matt Cooper’s Wednesday grand jury testimony about Rove. In short, he has made life difficult for those summer associates. “Every day,” says the lawyer involved in the case, “I have my associates put together a chronology of the things Luskin is saying about Karl Rove. He’s just all over the place. Even in the last few days, they are not consistent.”

Every Washington scandal eventually shifts from the political realm to the legal realm, a moment when those being investigated retreat from public view and their lawyers step forward. It is a make-or-break moment for the Beltway defense attorney, and one of the reasons that people like Luskin relish such high-profile cases. But Luskin is stumbling out of the gate. Not since William Ginsburg, Monica Lewinsky’s hapless first attorney, has a lawyer had such an inept public debut. Legal veterans of scandals past are scratching their heads. “He’s publicized his client more than his client might like,” says one of the lawyers central to the Lewinsky drama. “I’ve been surprised by the disclosures. I don’t know of any strategy behind it, and a lot of people are looking at it the same way.”

Over his 25-year legal career, Robert Luskin has defended a colorful cast of characters, including a drug kingpin, several figures on the fringes of the Clinton scandals, and, most recently, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But scoring Rove was a coup. Luskin is an unlikely choice for a Republican, let alone Rove. In fact, during the 1990s, a wide swath of the conservative movement spent a good chunk of its time trying to destroy his reputation. For the last ten years, Luskin has served as the in-house prosecutor for the Laborers’ International Union, where he has been charged with fighting corruption. The right was miffed that the Clinton administration let the Laborers clean house on their own rather than under the tutelage of the Justice Department, as was done with the Teamsters. One gadfly conservative organization, the National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC), turned discrediting Luskin into its own personal crusade. They produced a highly unflattering 13-page report that set off a cascade of critical stories and editorials in the conservative press. Under the headline “Luskin’s Ties to the New England/Patriarca Crime Family,” the report documented a fishy episode wherein Luskin was forced to return $245,000 in legal fees that he received from a client named Stephen A. Saccoccia, who was sentenced to 660 years in prison for laundering South American drug-cartel and mob money. A U.S. attorney, accusing Luskin of “willful blindness,” reasoned that, when Luskin started getting paid with solid gold bars (he ultimately received 45 of them, worth $505,125) and wire transfers from Swiss bank accounts, he should have known the payments were from illicit sources, especially since his client’s crimes involved gold bars and wire transfers from Swiss bank accounts.

Many of the other anti-Luskin criticisms concerned alleged conflicts of interest stemming from his defense of several clients wrapped up in Clinton- related scandals. Luskin soon became a target of The Washington Times, Investor’s Business Daily, The Weekly Standard, National Review, and The American Spectator, each arguing a version of the NLPC line that he was ethically unsuited for his job at the Laborers’ Union.

But, by the end of the ‘90s, Luskin had established himself as a top-tier defense attorney. He abandoned his boutique law firm for the gilded hallways of Patton Boggs. Still, big-name Washington lawyers say he’s not really part of the small clique of attorneys that seem to pop up during every investigation— people like Jacob Stein, Abbe Lowell, Plato Cacheris, Robert Bennett, and Reid Weingarten. “Let’s just say that I haven’t been in a case where he represented anyone,” sniffs a member of Washington’s legal royalty.

Luskin has represented Bush’s strategist for months, but it was only in July, when the extent of Rove’s role in the Plame case emerged, that the lawyer became a Beltway star. Previous legal celebrities, such as Ginsburg, became famous for their addiction to the cameras. Luskin has become famous for his word games. It is no surprise when a lawyer resorts to technicalities and evasions to defend his client. What sounds like an absurd defense and bad politics in the public arena may make perfect sense inside the courtroom. But Luskin’s comments seem to be legally inept as well.

The Harvard alum and Rhodes scholar first started getting chatty with reporters back in December. He told the Chicago Tribune that the only way for the prosecutor in the case, Patrick Fitzgerald, to establish a pattern of wrongdoing by the Bushies was for him to drag reporters into the grand jury. “I don’t see how you can conduct a leak investigation in a sensitive way,” he said, sounding oddly detached from the case for someone whose client’s fate was at stake. “You have to talk to everybody.” Perhaps he was just sucking up to the prosecutor, but it seemed bizarre for Rove’s attorney to publicly endorse a prosecutorial strategy that was tightening the noose around his client’s throat.

Luskin then went virtually silent for seven months. But, on Saturday, July 2, Newsweek posted an online story naming Rove as the source Cooper had kept secret for two years. In the piece, Luskin first unveiled Rove’s new defense. The strategist “never knowingly disclosed classified information,” and “he did not tell any reporter that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA,” Luskin insisted. The first statement was standard legal obfuscation. The arcane statute making it a crime to blow a CIA operative’s cover emphasizes that the deed must be done knowingly. Luskin’s second statement seemed like a blanket denial. But, on July 9, when Newsweek revealed an e-mail between Cooper and his editor stating that Rove mentioned Joe Wilson’s wife, rather than Valerie Plame, the press realized that it was actually a weasely Clintonism.

But, before that revelation, Luskin tried to snow every reporter he came across. In a July 3 story, he told The Washington Post, “Karl didn’t disclose Valerie Plame’s identity to Mr. Cooper or anybody else. ... Who outed this woman? ... It wasn’t Karl.” Maybe Luskin thought he was being technical and legalistic, but it’s hard to see this statement as anything but a lie. For instance, one could say, “Karl Rove’s lawyer accepted 45 gold bars worth $505, 125 from a South American drug cartel.” The statement does not actually mention Luskin’s name, but even Luskin would have to agree it identifies him.

Luskin fed versions of the Rove-didn’t-identify-Plame line to the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal, but, on July 6, he made what seems to have been a mistake. Cooper was headed to prison last Wednesday, but, when his lawyer picked up that morning’s Journal, just one sentence after Luskin’s now-familiar fib was a bonus quote: “If Matt Cooper is going to jail to protect a source, it’s not Karl he’s protecting.” Cooper and his lawyer seized on that statement as evidence that Rove was willing to release the reporter from his pledge of confidentiality. In a phone call, Luskin acknowledged to Cooper’s lawyer that the reporter was free to testify. If Luskin had kept his mouth shut, Cooper would have gone to prison and Rove might never have had to worry about him.

This episode launched an entirely new series of Luskinisms. Cooper publicly announced that his source had granted him consent to testify. Reporters naturally called Luskin to find out whether Rove was that source. No way, said Luskin. Rove had “not contacted Cooper about this matter,” Luskin assured the Los Angeles Times. Get it? Rove didn’t talk to Cooper. Their lawyers talked. What’s bewildering about Luskin’s evasion is that there was no legal rationale for it. After all, the prosecutor in the case knew exactly what had happened. When finally questioned by The Washington Post about this slipperiness, the lawyer was mum: “I’m not going to comment any further.”

“I” might not have commented anymore, but “Luskin” continued to. In the course of one interview with the Los Angeles Times, Luskin both refused to confirm or deny the authenticity of Cooper’s e-mail to his editor and used its contents as evidence of Rove’s innocence.

Next, in the same article, there was Luskin’s curious statement that Rove “was sharing what he knew but with the specific understanding it would not be disclosed.” Luskin emphasized this important point by noting that, in the e- mail, which, according to him, may or may not be real, Cooper said he was speaking to Rove “on double super secret background,” a phrase that Luskin apparently believes is an actual level of confidentiality taught at the Columbia School of Journalism rather than a jokey reference to the movie Animal House. (Dean Wormer famously put the Delta boys on double secret probation.)

Luskin has, in fact, developed a whole new strategy based on the double super secret background nature of the Cooper-Rove interview, a strategy that rests on the fact that Luskin doesn’t quite get Cooper’s sense of humor. On Tuesday, the lawyer earnestly defended Rove in an interview with National Review Online. “Look at the Cooper e-mail,” Luskin told reporter Byron York, ironically the same journalist who once trashed Luskin in a 1997 American Spectator piece. “Karl speaks to him on double super secret background.” Call it the Dean Wormer defense.

I called Luskin to ask him about all this. But he never called me back. After his first two weeks in the spotlight, he doesn’t seem to be talking to the press as much anymore, not even, it appears, on double super secret background. At least that will make life easier for those summer associates.

This article originally ran in the July 25, 2005 issue of the magazine.