On January 14, The Daily Beast reported that Ben Brafman decided to quit as Harvey Weinstein's lead defense attorney.
According to a source with direct knowledge of the matter, representatives for Weinstein have contacted a number of high-profile criminal defense lawyers to take over from Brafman as a trial for the accused sexual abuser approaches.
But Weinstein, in a rare statement, said, “The rumor is untrue. We are looking to augment the team, not replace anyone.”
The outreach comes as a surprise, because Brafman has been successful in recent months at reducing Weinstein’s legal exposure. The Manhattan District Attorney’s office dropped one of its six sex-crimes charges against Weinstein, and declined to pursue fraud charges connected with payments made to Weinstein’s alleged victims.
“I think [Brafman] has put the prosecutors feet to the fire and called them out when needed,” Julie Rendelman, a former Brooklyn prosecutor and high-powered defense attorney, told The Daily Beast.
But Brafman’s bid to dismiss the other five criminal charges was denied in December, and Weinstein is set to go on trial on May 6 in New York State Court, where he’ll be accused of sexually assaulting one woman and raping another. More than 80 women have accused Weinstein of mistreatment. Numerous lawsuits have been filed against him in civil court. Weinstein has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges, but said in a 2017 statement that “the way I've behaved with colleagues in the past has caused a lot of pain, and I sincerely apologize for it… I cannot be more remorseful about the people I hurt and I plan to do right by all of them.”
Asked by The Daily Beast about Weinstein shopping for a new lawyer, Brafman responded via email, “Do not want to discuss this. Period.”
Soon after the Beast reached out to Brafman about the potential legal change, Weinstein spokesman Juda Engelmayer emailed requesting to chat. In an interview, he did not flat out deny that Weinstein was looking to hire new lawyers, but disputed that Brafman was being replaced as the lead attorney.
“There is nothing rock solid about that. If Harvey’s going to do anything, he’d augment it not reduce it,” he told The Daily Beast. “As it currently stands that’s not the case.”
“I don’t want to say he doesn’t talk to lawyers,” he later added. “He talks to people all the time.”
Asked about replacing Brafman, Engelmayer said, “I have not been in any meetings like that.”
“Ben is still my go-to person,” he said. “Ben is the lead.”
Brafman has, over the years, helped a string of celebrity clients dodge trouble. In 1999, he defended Sean Combs, who was acquitted on bribery and weapons charges. In the 2010s, Brafman represented International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was accused by New York prosecutors of sexually assaulting a hotel maid in 2011; the charges were later dropped.
Rendelman said that Brafman has done a good job in the Weinstein case keeping the pressure on the district attorney’s office and making light of investigative missteps. In October, the judge tossed a sexual assault count tied to allegations by actress Lucia Evans that Weinstein forced her to perform oral sex on him during a meeting at his Manhattan office. It turned out that a friend of Evans had informed the lead investigator that Evans told her she performed the sex act in hopes of landing an acting job. The detective did not pass on that information to prosecutors, who did not object to the charge being dismissed.
It was a major win for Weinstein’s defense, Rendelman said, because the dismissal of one charge, “which inevitably may bring into question all the other charges.”
However, Rendelman, believes that some of Brafman’s public comments are not going to serve him or his client well, particularly one after Weinstein’s arraignment in May when the defense attorney said that “Mr. Weinstein did not invent the casting couch in Hollywood, and to the extent that there is bad behavior in that industry, that’s not what this is about. Bad behavior is not on trial in this case."
“‘Not creating the casting couch’ was not his finest moment,” Rendelman said. “After all, this isn’t a casting couch issue. It’s not a sexual harassment issue. It’s whether he committed a crime. I do think [Brafman] was trying to indicate that Weinstein should not be blamed for all the bad behavior that went on for years in Hollywood. However, it was a bad choice of words.”
But the sentiment isn’t much different from the one expressed by Weinstein in 2017 when he was first publicly accused. “I came of age in the 60's and 70's, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then,” he wrote.
Weinstein has worked with a number of bold-faced names in the legal community over the years, including his friend and occasional business associate David Boies, who rose to prominence for arguing the landmark Bush v. Gore case. Boies negotiated a number of settlements with Weinstein accusers over the years, and helped to quash negative stories about the producer. But the two split after revelations that Boies’ firm hired an investigative agency, Black Cube, that spied on New York Times reporters looking into Weinstein’s alleged misconduct. Weinstein also worked with Lisa Bloom, who is known for her representation of alleged sex-assault victims — and who boasted of having “files” on one Weinstein’s accusers. “I feel very bad, because so many people have said that they really looked up to me as this champion for women... I’m sorry,” she told the Los Angeles Times after her association with Weinstein was revealed in 2017. In a subsequent television interview, Bloom said: “I’m mortified that I was connected with him in any way.”
—with additional reporting by Michael Daly