E. Robert Wallach, whose career as a heavyweight litigator in California was overshadowed by his connection to one of the biggest corruption scandals to hit Washington under the Reagan administration, died May 15 at his home of Alameda, California, near Berkeley. He was 88 years old.
His daughter Nancy Garvey confirmed the death but did not specify the cause.
Almost from the time he graduated at the top of his law class from the University of California, Berkeley, Mr. Wallach was widely regarded as one of the top personal injury attorneys in California.
It was not his favorite field: the son of factory workers in New York, he dreamed of entering labor law, but there were no jobs available. Instead, in the 1970s, he was known for winning headline-grabbing verdicts, including one of the first million-dollar medical malpractice judgments in California.
A progressive Democrat who drove a vintage Jaguar and wore Brioni suits, he embodied San Francisco’s blend of idealism and material success; The Los Angeles Times called him “a sophisticated, liberal lawyer for this sophisticated, liberal city.”
He was known for his eccentricities. He preferred to spell his full name with all lowercase letters – his friends called him “tiny bob” – and in 1976 he ran for the US Senate on a platform calling for the decriminalization of marijuana. (He dropped out before the primary.)
So it came as a shock to many when, in the early 1980s, he closed his practice and moved to Washington to become an unofficial adviser to Edwin Meese III, a close friend from law school who had become an adviser. of President Ronald Reagan. Mr. Meese had taught at the University of San Diego, but Mr. Wallach encouraged him to go into administration.
During a farewell lunch in San Francisco, Mr. Wallach told a group of lawyers and judges that he could be their gateway to the White House. For some, it was a cynical decision to take advantage of his sudden proximity to power. But Mr Wallach insisted he was simply trying to help his progressive allies under a Tory administration.
And, indeed, most of his work in Washington was pro bono, including advising a small South Bronx defense contractor called Wedtech. Mr. Wallach was drawn to the company’s seed story – its founders were working-class immigrants – and he agreed to help it win a contract to make small engines for the military.
Mr. Wallach wrote memos to Mr. Meese touting Wedtech. Mr. Meese in turn pressured skeptical army officials into sealing the deal, and in 1982 Wedtech won an untendered contract for $32 million.
Mr. Wallach wasn’t the only Washington figure to work with Wedtech. It later emerged that the company poured huge sums into the coffers of politicians, lobbyists and former administration officials to win big contracts with the Pentagon, often doctoring invoices to hide kickbacks. -wine.
It worked: Wedtech quickly had $250 million in contracts. But prosecutors caught wind of the company’s maneuverings and, in 1986, began charging company executives and top Washington officials with a long list of crimes.
At that time, Mr. Meese was President Reagan’s Attorney General, and Mr. Wallach was under contract with Wedtech. Along the way, Mr. Wallach had persuaded Mr. Meese to hire a financial adviser named W. Franklyn Chinn to manage his nest egg in a blind trust; Mr. Chinn happened to be a member of Wedtech’s board of directors.
Wedtech went bankrupt in 1986 and the following year Mr. Wallach, Mr. Chinn and another associate were charged with 18 counts, including mail fraud, securities fraud and conspiracy to defraud the US government.
The Iran-Contra affair remains the defining scandal of the end of the Reagan era, but the Wedtech affair was just as calamitous. This led to the conviction of more than a dozen people, including Lyn Nofziger, Reagan’s former press secretary (whose conviction was overturned on appeal).
Mr Meese had weathered several scandals before, and by 1988 there was bipartisan pressure on him to step down. Although an independent attorney declined to charge him with a crime, the attorney’s report castigated him for ignoring the spirit of government ethics laws. He finally resigned in August 1988.
Mr. Wallach insisted he was a victim, a naïve idealist manipulated by Wedtech executives. “I found out I’m such a baby in the woods,” he told the Washington Post in 1987.
Yet he was convicted of fraud in 1989 and sentenced to six years in prison.
He appealed and he became something of a cause celebre among lawyers left and right who thought the case was politically motivated, using Mr. Wallach to go after Mr. Meese or even Reagan. Conservative jurist Robert Bork organized his defence; Joining the effort was Dennis P. Riordan, who had defended the Black Panthers in California.
During the call, it emerged that the two main witnesses for the prosecution had perjured themselves and that the prosecution was likely aware of the perjury but remained silent. The case was dismissed, but the government launched a new case against Mr Wallach in 1991.
This time Mr. Wallach decided to defend himself – a risky move, especially given the legal firepower wielded against him by the Southern District of New York, led at the time by Rudolph Giuliani.
The case dragged on for two years, but Mr. Wallach prevailed. In 1993, with the jury deadlocked, the Justice Department decided to drop him.
Mr. Wallach was legally clear but financially ruined. He had been without a regular income for almost a decade, the affair had drained his savings and, especially in California, his reputation was in tatters.
Undeterred, he returned to the Bay Area. He was soon winning lawsuits and rebuilding his reputation; in his 58-year career, he brought 283 cases to verdict and lost just 14.
He has taught at several Bay Area law schools and has mentored dozens of young lawyers, offering courtroom advice and understanding the importance of mastering the art of trial.
“He said every trial was a great drama dominated by the hidden truths of human nature,” Robert J. Giuffra Jr., a close friend who is an attorney at Sullivan & Cromwell, said in a phone interview. “In the opinion of most people, Bob was considered one of the greatest trial lawyers of his generation.”
Eugene Robert Wallach was born on April 11, 1934 in Manhattan. His parents, Ben and Eva (Lowenstein) Wallach, had met as workers in a hat factory in Harlem. They divorced when Bob was 7, after which he and his mother moved to Los Angeles.
With the Second World War underway, Mrs Wallach found a job making bomb bay doors at a Lockheed aircraft factory – she was, Mr Wallach said, a veritable ‘Rosie the Riveter’.
A high school teacher introduced him to debate, and he was good enough to win a full scholarship to the University of Colorado. He then transferred to the University of Southern California, where he graduated in 1955. He worked throughout college and law school; while at Berkeley he worked at a cannery.
He met Mr. Meese during their third year, where they were both part of the mock trial team. Although they are politically opposed, they have become close friends. When Mr. Wallach’s wife, Barbara, was hospitalized, the Mees looked after the Wallachs’ three daughters; later, when the Mees’ son died in a car accident while they were out of town, Mr. Wallach identified his body.
Mr. Wallach’s marriage ended in divorce. Besides his daughter Nancy, he is survived by two other daughters, Jamie Wallach and Bonny Wallach, and seven grandchildren.
Mr. Wallach began his career with Walkup & Downing, a San Francisco firm, and went freelance in 1971. While in Washington, he was appointed to the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy and served as a later was appointed Ambassador to the United Nations. Human Rights Commission.
He worked as hard after his return from Washington as he had before, if not harder. He spent a decade as lead attorney at Sharper Image, and in 2012 and 2013, at an age when most attorneys are retiring, he spent 134 days in court, working on three trials. In 2016, he became senior legal counsel at Rains Lucia Stern St. Phalle & Silver.
He never regretted his time in Washington, but he expressed remorse for encouraging Mr. Meese to join the Reagan administration.
“Ed wondered if he should go to Washington,” he told The Washington Post. “I regret to this day whatever role I played.”