The Talent

May 27, 2008 4:40 PM

Defending Mel Weiss

Posted by Ben Hallman

Mother Teresa, move aside. Melvyn Weiss, a plaintiffs lawyer who made millions of dollars by suing corporate America--and who recently pleaded guilty to a racketeering conspiracy for paying kickbacks to clients in many of those cases--deserves recognition as "one of the greatest humanitarians of our time," according to a sentencing memo his lawyer filed Friday.

The table of contents sets the tone for the memo, which is effusive in its praise of Weiss. "The scope of the charity and generosity of Melvyn Weiss is breathtaking," reads the header to one section. Weiss has a "compulsion" to make the world a better place, reads another. He is also "spontaneously kind," the memo says.

On March 17, Weiss signed a plea deal calling for a sentence of 18-33 months, admitting that he "engaged in a pattern of racketeering activity" for at least 26 years. In a subsequent memo to the court, prosecutors asked California district court judge John Walter to sentence Weiss to the full 33 months. The Weiss memo, filed by attorney Benjamin Brafman, pleads for leniency. "The shame Mr. Weiss has suffered and will continue to suffer is overwhelming," it says. "To be candid, it is difficult to imagine a greater punishment than the punishment that has already been imposed by the public he now deals with the prospect of incarceration and the indignity of disbarment."

Attached to the memo are letters from 240 legal luminaries, family members, and even a parking attendant attesting to Weiss's good works.

David Boies, name partner at Boies, Schiller & Flexner, asks for a period of home confinement or community service rather than jail time to be included as part of any sentence. Despite his crimes, Boies writes, Weiss is "the real deal," a man of "extraordinary warmth, integrity, and accomplishment."

Retired Kirkland & Ellis partner Donald Kempf says he was not recruited to write a letter on behalf of Weiss, but that he volunteered. He describes Weiss as a "tireless and effective advocate for his clients," and relates a personal anecdote about Weiss's goodwill. "I was walking down the street in New York City one Saturday afternoon, and ran into Mel and his wife," Kempf writes. "When I explained I was looking for a certain watch, Mel said he knew a dealer in that particular watch and could help me find it--perhaps at a discount. And he did. It was a small thing, but it reflects his genuine interest in others."

Daniel Benoit, manager of the One Penn Plaza parking garage where Weiss parked his car for eight years, recalls complementing Weiss on a suit he was wearing, and then receiving one as a gift from Weiss soon after.

Eric Zagrans, an attorney at the Zagrans law firm in Elyria, Ohio, met Weiss 20 years ago when he was a professor at Case Western Reserve University Law School. Zagrans describes Weiss as a "pillar of the community and a giant of the class action bar," and enlists Shakespeare and "The Merchant of Venice"
on behalf of his old friend.

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

While an eloquent defense of mercy, Weiss's detractors might point to another line in the play as most appropriate to the situation: "All that glitters is not gold." 

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I have known Mel Weiss for more than 30 years. He is truly a generrous and caring human being. Like all humans he has flaws. This is truly a tragedy and none should take any pleasure or joy in learning that he, like all of us, has some frailties. To the extent that one can be said to have "earned" a measure of mercy, he would be near the top of that list.

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