A Conversation With William G. Hundley
(As appeared in The Washington Lawyer, November 2001)
William G. Hundley is a 1950 graduate of Fordham Law School. He began his law career at the U.S. Department of Justice, where he later served as head of the Organized Crime and Racketeering Section and as a special assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. In private practice he subsequently established himself as a preeminent criminal defense attorney, representing clients in some of the nation’s most publicized cases, including former attorney general John Mitchell during Watergate and Vernon Jordan during the Monica Lewinsky investigation.
The Washington Lawyer:
Tell us a little bit about your education.
I’m from Brooklyn, where I attended Catholic schools. I had nuns in grammar school, Christian brothers in high school, and Jesuits in college.
During World War II I couldn’t wait to get in the service, and then I couldn’t wait to get out. I was a machine gun sergeant in the 87th Infantry Division and saw combat in Europe at the Battle of the Bulge. I clearly remember that I served for two years, two months, and one day. I was 19 when I received my honorable discharge and entered Fordham College in New York.
When did you decide to become a lawyer?
I don’t know. My father was an engineer and my two brothers were engineers. I went to St. Augustine High School in Brooklyn, and if it hadn’t been for the war I probably would have gone to Manhattan College and become an engineer, too. But after I came home from the war, I enrolled in the prelaw program at Fordham. After three years of college, if you were a veteran with a B average you could enter the law school. And that’s what I did.
I think I studied law because I saw how hard my brothers worked as engineering students at Columbia and Cooper Union. That’s not to say I was a bad student, but I wasn’t nearly as smart as my two brothers. Engineering is very objective; there is a right answer and a wrong answer. I liked the gray area of law where my arguments could be as good as someone else’s. So I broke tradition and became the first lawyer in the family.
I graduated from law school in 1950, passed the New York Bar, and then I joined the Justice Department in 1951.
You were with the Internal Security Division, correct?
It was during the McCarthy era, in the 1950s. While I was in law school, the Justice Department prosecuted leaders in the communist party in New York in Dennis v. United States, and they won the case before the Supreme Court. Afterward the Justice Department decided to prosecute domestic communists across the United States. When I came to the Justice Department that was the big-ticket item: all the young lawyers spent time in the Internal Security Division.
I was sent to try two cases, one in Pittsburgh and one in Detroit. It was unbelievable. These domestic communists were about as threatening as my grandmother. The only thing they ever threw was pamphlets, but J. Edgar Hoover had "discovered" the communist threat. In truth he kept it alive; his informants were nearly the only ones that paid the party dues. As a young lawyer, 23 or 24 years old, I remember reading the informant reports, and most of the time they talked about civil rights, equal opportunity, and women’s rightsall perfectly legitimate. Once I came across a line where a guy jumped up and said, "Let’s cut out all the bull. When are we going to start the revolution?" I got excited and ran to the FBI supervisor. All the agents had a big huddle, and they came back and said, "Well, you can’t use that. That’s one of our informants." As part of our trial evidence, we would try to show that for security reasons party members would break down into cells of three so there would only be one person in each cell who knew anybody else. The defense counsel in the Detroit case, Ernie Goodman, proved that in each cell of three there were two FBI informants.
It was very disillusioning. We would be prosecuting Detroit communists on one floor of the federal building and the House Un-American Activities Committee would be conducting hearings on another floor. McCarthyism was running wild. I’m not particularly proud of any association I had with those prosecutions. When I got through in Detroit, I asked to get out.
The new head of the Criminal Division, Malcolm Anderson, had been the United States attorney in Pittsburgh when I worked on the communist trial there, and he made me the chief of the Organized Crime and Racketeering Section. William P. Rogers was attorney general and the federal government was starting to focus on prosecuting organized crime. This was around the time the infamous Apalachin meeting took place where all mafia leaders met.
I found the switch from Internal Security to Organized Crime amazing. The FBI was zealous in its pursuit of communists, and they would assign any number of agents I requested to investigate communists. If I were thinking out loud that it might be nice to interview a witness, they would do it. In Organized Crime they wouldn’t lift a finger. They didn’t want to get involved. When John F. Kennedy was elected president and Robert Kennedy became attorney general, he pushed the FBI on organized crime, but they still weren’t much help.
How did you come to be a special assistant to Attorney General Robert
That’s a funny story. I was head of Organized Crime under the Republicans, and with the Democrats in control of the Senate, Robert Kennedy became chief counsel to the McClellan Committee investigating organized crime, corrupt unions, and Jimmy Hoffa. I ultimately got pretty close to Kennedy, but in those days he sent over lots of what I thought were terrible cases on Hoffa. I was the Justice official that was turning him down. I’d go see him, and I’d try to explain that he didn’t have the evidence. Although he never said it, some of the people around him felt that I should indict Hoffa and get the evidence later. So we had sort of a funny relationship at that time, but I thought he liked me and respected me.
When Kennedy became attorney general, he called me in to his office and I was surprised to hear him say, "You know, Bill, I’ve been critical of you, and I want to bring in my own guy to head Organized Crime." He said he wanted me to stay on, though, and be a special assistant. I was shocked. If I’d had a job to go to, I’d have left. But during this time as a special assistant, I had some really interesting cases and I loved it. I personally tried New York Supreme Court Justice Vincent Keogh for accepting bribes and got a conviction, and I met Edward Bennett Williams when I was prosecuting Bernard Goldfine, a New England industrialist and real estate developer, for tax evasion.
Although I loved what I was doing, I was getting ready to leave the department. I was going to go either with Bill Rogers’s law firm in New YorkI thought he was a very good attorney general and a nice guyor with Irving Shapiro, who had been one of my mentors in the Justice Department and was general counsel at DuPont. I was debating my options when Kennedy called me to his office and said, "I want you to take over the Organized Crime section again." He didn’t say he’d made a mistake, but the lawyer he had brought in from New York to replace me apparently wasn’t working out too well. My response was, "You know, Bobby, I’m getting ready to leave. I’m pushing 40, I’ve got kids, and I really don’t want to be head of the section again. I’m really not good at that anyway. I’m not a great administrator." Being an administrator wasn’t my shtick. I liked to try cases and I was told I was good at it. He told me, "Bill, take it for a year and I’ll take care of you." So I took it.
During my second stint as head of Organized Crime I got close to Kennedy. I don’t want you to think I was an intimate. I wasn’t. His aides thought I might be a Republican, but I’ve been a Democrat all my life. I worked with him on many matters, and I really came to admire him. He stood for most of the things that I was for. He was way ahead of his brother on civil rights. I watched him with the blacks and he was so sincere. He hated Hoover, I hated Hoover. We thought we were going to get Hoover fired. The president of the United States, his brother, had said, "Okay, but first I’ve got to get reelected."
Kennedy and I were never on the same page when it came to Hoffa. When I came back as head of Organized Crime, he set up a group within my section we called the Terrible Twenty. They were out to get Hoffa. Technically they were to report to me, but he still didn’t trust me with Hoffa. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t for Hoffa. However, I didn’t like 20 attorneys targeting him, and although he was convicted in Tennessee for jury fixing while I was at Justice, I didn’t like the case because I didn’t believe the principal witness. They gave him a polygraph in jail and he flunked, and then they let him out and he passed.
For some reason Kennedy really hated Hoffa. Robert Kennedy had a great capacity for love, but he also had an equally great capacity for hate. Hoffa was in jail when Bobby ran for president in 1968. I campaigned for him and was flying someplace with him when he asked, "How’s Hoffa doing?" I said, "How do you think he’s doing? He’s in Lewisburg penitentiary." Bobby said, "You know, if I become president I’m going to let him out," and I believe he would have. With him it was a game he had to win. Whether it was touch football or a prosecution, he had the Kennedy win-at-any-cost attitude.
What did you do immediately after you left the Justice Department?
I couldn’t try criminal cases in the federal courts for a year because of conflict statutes, so I needed an interim job. When I had prosecuted the Goldfine case, I had gotten friendly with the defense counsel, Ed Williams. At that time he was running the Redskins and I had to do something for a year, so Williams got me a job with the NFL. I was a special assistant to Pete Rozelle, the NFL commissioner. My principal responsibility was to make sure there were no scandals. Drug use wasn’t the big thing then, it was gambling. I’d go out and lecture the players on the evils of gambling and that they should keep quiet to outsiders about injuries, things like that. It was a fun job. Rozelle wanted me to stay with the league, but if I was going to stay permanently, I was going to have to move to New York City. I commuted from D.C. for a year and I didn’t want to do that. He had a big party for me in New York and he talked to my wife. He suggested that I could do what he did, and we could have a nice house out in Connecticut and I could have an apartment during the week in Manhattan (they paid very well). I told Rozelle, "Any chance you ever had, you just blew it." But I wasn’t going to do it anyway.
I came back to Washington and that’s when Plato Cacheris and I got together. Plato and I had tried cases together in the Justice Department. When he left Justice he became the first assistant U.S. attorney in Virginia. We were good friends, so we got together and formed Hundley & Cacheris.
Ed Williams was my mentor when I made the big switch from prosecutor to defense attorney. He was the greatest lawyer and a great friend. As the premier defense lawyer in town, he got first pick at everything, but he used to refer to me the ones he had conflicts with. I can’t tell you how many cases he steered my way. We worked very closely together.
Thirteen years ago Bob Strauss, who is the wisest man I have ever known, persuaded me to become his partner at Akin, Gump. It has been a great ride.
What are some of the big changes as you switch from a prosecutor
to a defense attorney?
The hardest thing to learn when I became a defense attorney was how to lose. At Justice we could select the cases we wanted to bring. I can’t remember losing a case as a prosecutor. Well, you lose them as a defense attorney!
I remember Williams telling me things like "Look, Bill, as long as you don’t see your name in the upper left-hand corner of the indictment, don’t get too upset about it," and "Don’t get personally involved. Your job is to give them the best defense you possibly can." He was very much my mentor in all of these cases.
Another change is you don’t wear the white hat anymore as a defense attorney. There again Williams offered his advice. He would always say the worst defense lawyers are the ones who become convinced their clients are innocent. He had a mythical lawyer, Slobotkin. He would always say, "Bill, if they’re innocent, they don’t come to us. They don’t pay us. They go to Slobotkin."
Most of the people that I’ve represented have had some problems. I’ve won some. I’ve won more than my share. It’s a great feeling. But you don’t win that much, and you don’t always win on the merits. You win on technicalities, statute of limitations, and things like that. It’s quite a change.
When you left Justice and started working with Cacheris, John Mitchell
was one of your first big cases. How did he end up on your doorstep?
I’m not absolutely certain, but I have a very, very good hunch. Henry Peterson was my deputy at Justice when I was head of Organized Crime. Because I was so close to Kennedy, the Johnson people said, in a very nice way, it was time for me to leave. I said okay, but I wanted them to give my job to Peterson. In essence I was the only head of the Organized Crime section fired twiceonce by Kennedy, once by Johnson: both times by Democrats. Looking back, they might have had a little trouble with me, I don’t know. In any event, they gave Peterson the job.
When John Mitchell became attorney general, he called me: "I want to make your friend, Henry Peterson, the first career head of the Criminal Division." It was really quite an honor. That was always a political job, but I wondered why he was calling me. He continued, "I know he’s your best friend, and I want to give him this job. I don’t care what his politics are, but is there any way you could tell him to stop telling everybody who is trying to interview him for the job that he’s a registered Democrat?" I honestly thought Henry Peterson was a Republican. He was very conservative, and every time he would catch me playing politics with the Kennedys he’d come in and stop me. In a delicate way I tried to get the idea across, and Mitchell made him the first career head of the Criminal Division. Peterson and Mitchell became very close, and I have a hunch Henry directed him to me.
What did you think when you had the former attorney general approach
you as a client after he came under investigation during the Watergate
I was a young attorney. I was relatively new in private practice. It was great. And not only that, he was a very easy client. He was very fatalistic about what was going to happen. I didn’t get a story telling me how innocent he was or anything like that. He was a standup guy.
He never attempted to justify his involvement in the obstruction-of-
justice case that was brought against him?
No. He didn’t particularly like to talk about the case. That was okay with me, because he insisted on testifying. On the day he testified we drove to the courthouse in his limousine and he finally brought up the subject. "Do you have any last minute advice, Coach?" (He’d call me "Coach" every now and then.) I said two things to him. "Number one, don’t try to take on every government witness. And number two, and this is more important, I know you love Nixon, but when you’re up there just defend yourself. I’m not asking you to say anything bad about Nixon, just leave him out of it." His testimony on direct was okay. Then it was Jim Neal’s turn. Neal was the principal prosecutor, a class act and a very fine prosecutor. Within 10 minutes of cross-examination he had Mitchell eulogizing Nixon. The D.C. jury was ready to leap out of the box and strangle Mitchell. After we finished I was slouched in the back of his limo and Mitchell said, "What’s the matter with you, Coach?" "You know what’s the matter. Within 10 minutes Neal had you eulogizing Nixon." He said to me, "What difference does it make?" I laughed and said, "You’re probably right."
Were you pleased that Nixon was declared medically unfit to be called
as a witness?
I was surprised Judge Sirica didn’t compel Nixon to testify, because he was pretty much a house judge in this case. Sirica tried the original group who broke into the Watergate. He gave them very heavy sentences, but made it clear he would reduce the sentence of anyone who came forward and implicated the higher-ups. Once they started to roll over, Mitchell, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman were indicted. Sirica was the chief judge and it was his job to assign cases. When Mitchell and his cohorts came up, Sirica assigned the case to himself. It really didn’t make any difference, since they would have been convicted in front of any judge, but I took the lead in moving to disqualify him. I could not get all of the defense lawyers to go alongthey should have. Even Neal, the prosecutor, felt I had a strong argument. Of course with his case Neal was going to get a conviction with any judge presiding. There was no way Sirica was going to give up this case, and he denied my motion. I raised it on appeal and got nowhere.
Years later I went to see Judge Sirica in chambers on something else and he was lecturing U.S. marshals. He was making the point that he has a temper (which he did) but then he gets over it and forgets about it. He pointed at me and said, "Here’s Hundley, a perfect example. He’s the fellow who moved to disqualify me. I was really mad about it, but I’ve gotten over it. I’ve forgotten all about it." This was three to five years laterhe didn’t seem to have forgotten about it.
Were you surprised when you first heard the Watergate tapes?
Yes, I was surprised that they were so bad, because the White House was putting out sanitized versions. I’ll give you an example. They released a transcript of Dean’s conversation with Nixon about the coverup. Their version had Nixon saying, "What? Pay them?" as if it were a question. It came across like it didn’t mean anything. However, on the tape Nixon pounds the desk and thunders, "Pay them!" The tapes were just murder. It was impossible to defend them, and you can’t cross-examine a tape.
Would you have liked to see Nixon indicted as well?
I don’t know. I often wonder if he would have reciprocated Mitchell’s loyalty. I remember listening during the trial to tapes of meetings between Nixon, Ehrlichman, and Haldeman. They talked for hours about how they could get Mitchell to bite the bullet for all of them, and Nixon was taking the lead. This was the man Mitchell was protecting? I said to Mitchell, "Your friend?" And his answer was, "Oh, Bill. You don’t know everything." He wasn’t fazed by it.
I would go to see him in jail at Maxwell Air Force Base in connection with parole and the camp superintendent would say to me, "Don’t go in now, he’s talking to Nixon and he wouldn’t want you to hear him." Of course, I’d go in and say, "That’s great. Here you are in the slammer and he’s out there in San Clemente."
Mitchell needed a hip replacement while he was in jail and Norman Carlson, director of the Bureau of Prisons, agreed to let him have the procedure on a furloughyou can get a one-month furlough for that. After the hip replacement I went to see Griffin Bell, the attorney general, to get another month of furlough, and then another month. He was a great guy, and I’d keep asking for another month and he’d grant it. My friend Carlson would tell me, "Bill, you’re ruining the whole Bureau of Prisons." After a while even Bell starting asking me to leave by the back stairs. Meanwhile, Mitchell was sitting in Georgetown puffing on his pipe. Eventually they wouldn’t let me in to see Bell anymore and Mitchell had to go back to prison. We pretty well had the furlough recordsix months, I believe.
Judge Sirica made all the defendants apologize and then he reduced their sentences. Mitchell served about 18 months. The only one who wouldn’t apologize was Liddy. He didn’t get out until Carter commuted his sentence.
Mitchell perhaps is the only participant who didn’t write a book
He wouldn’t do it. We had some discussions with publishers, but he wouldn’t write about Watergate, he wouldn’t write about Nixon, and he wouldn’t write about Martha [Mitchell]. What else did he have to say that interested anybody?
We kept in touch when he got out. He stayed in D.C. and opened a small consulting firm. He lost his [law] license, of course; he never tried to get it back, and his wife divorced him.
I’ll tell you a funny story about Martha. Mitchell could handle the fall; she couldn’t. When she wasn’t drinking and taking pills, she was a very nice lady, but she got pretty bad during Watergate. She wanted her husband to turn in Nixonyou might say her instincts were better than hisand threatened to break into the Ervin Committee hearings and announce that her husband was lying to protect Nixon. We figured Mitchell was going to testify before the committee for three or four days, so we had Mitchell’s secretary drive Martha down to Mississippi. She had grown up there and liked to go back and visit. We figured it would take about two days to drive down there and she’d find out that he’s testifying when she arrived. At that time she was terribly afraid of flying, even though she had been an airline hostess, so she wouldn’t be able to get back. It worked like a charm. He testified and, of course, got wiped out. When we returned to the hotel room, the phone rang. It was Martha: "You son of bitch!" I said, "Wait a minute. I’ll put your husband on." She replied, "No, I mean you. You shanghaied me!" She never talked to me after that.
The next big scandal in which you represented a client was Koreagate.
What did that case involve?
Tongsun Park was the exclusive South Korean rice agent in this country. At that time South Korea imported virtually all of its rice, and he distributed white envelopes to influence senators and congressmen. When he was indicted, he fled to Korea. We didn’t have an extradition treaty with Korea at that time and they weren’t sending him back. Congress really wanted him to testify, so they threatened to cut off aid to Korea. As a result of this political situation I got really lucky and the Justice Department granted Park transactional immunity. The irony is the Koreans would have sent him back anyway if they had waited just a little longer.
The Justice Department indicted the biggest recipient of Park’s largess, a Louisiana congressman named Otto Passman, for corruption and bribery. They also charged him with tax evasion in the same indictment. Including the tax evasion charge was a mistake, because it allowed him to get the case transferred to his hometown of Monroe, Louisiana, and they loved Passman down there. I went there for the trial and I’d go into restaurants with Park and people would get up and leave. I called the defense lawyer, who happened to be a pretty good friend of mine, and said, "What do you think a Monroe, Louisiana, jury is going to think of Tongsun Park?" He said, "I don’t know." I was taken aback. "What do you mean you don’t know? You’ve tried a million cases here?" "I don’t think they’ve ever seen a Korean before," he said.
I thought the prosecution presented a pretty good case. But when the defense attorney got up to cross-examine Tongsun Park, he carried a big map of Korea. He didn’t even touch the merits of the case. He identified South Korea and noted that it’s right under North Korea and next to China. Then he pointed out that North Korea and China are totalitarian communist states. The jury was out less than 90 minutes, and they acquitted Passman on every charge.
It seems like you’ve defended some real characters. Is there anyone
in particular who stands out as a favorite character?
Tongsun was probably the most unusual. While he was in Korea, but after he had been granted immunity, we had to appear for some hearings in Korea. He called me and he said he had been asked to take a polygraph. I said, "No, no, we’re not taking any polygraph." I don’t believe in them. He said, "My government wants me to take a polygraph." He was scared to death of the Korean government, and he had to take the test. The FBI sent over their best agent to administer the polygraph, and the Korean papers had a field day pointing out that philosophers have tried for centuries to figure out who’s telling the truth and who’s lying, and here the Americans have a little black box that solves the dilemma. Because I knew he had to take it, I didn’t want him to worry, and I told him, "Polygraphs aren’t worth anything." He went through the entire polygraph session and the line never moved. According to the test, he was cleared. Afterward he said to me, "You’re right, they’re not worth a damn."
You know, you don’t represent that many clients that you really like. I liked Mitchell and I liked Claude Wild. Wild was the Gulf Oil lobbyist during the Watergate era who passed out money and favors on Capitol Hill. Among other reasons, I liked him because he was the only one who gave it all away. It was all cash, and he never kept anything for a rainy day. He was a standup guy and wouldn’t turn anybody in. I got him acquitted, and we still keep in touch. I love Vernon Jordan. He is the coolest client I have ever represented. Warren Trepp, who was Michael Milken’s chief junk bond trader, is a true friend and manages my pension fund.
Weren’t you involved in a high- profile Maryland case arising from
charges against the governor, Marvin Mandel?
Yes, I represented Dale Hess, a former Maryland legislator and close friend of Marvin Mandel. They were charged with fraud in connection with the old Marlboro racetrack. There were two trials actually and I worked on both. Alleged jury tampering resulted in a mistrial the first time around. In the second trial the jury was out for 13 days. Every morning the judge would speak to the jury. Although it’s not clear when you read the transcript, if you were sitting there you knew what he was saying: "You’re not going home until you bring in the right verdict." It was very clear what he thought the verdict should be. The judge made a lot of errors in the second trial and it was overturned on appeal, but the conviction was reinstated on a four-to-four vote in the Fourth Circuit sitting en banc. I had a pretty tough time convincing my client he had to go to jail on a tie vote. When the Supreme Court greatly restricted the application of the mail fraud statute, we ultimately won the case 13 or 14 years later and the convictions were vacated. Mandel got his license back and he’s practicing law in Annapolis. Hess got all his RICO money back but without any interest.
What are your reflections on your time in the Justice Department?
I can honestly say I’ve never done anything in the legal profession that’s measured up to working in the Justice Department, particularly during Camelot. It’s always been the highlight. I really felt that I was making a difference. Listen, I’m elated when I win a case on this side, don’t get me wrong, but you don’t have the same feeling.
I try to get the younger litigation lawyers here at Akin, Gump, for instance, to do some time at Justice or as an assistant U.S. attorney, because it’s a wonderful experience. As a young lawyer I had tremendous responsibility in the Justice Department. In the U.S. attorney’s office they hand you the file and you try the case. As a young lawyer here, it’s hard to get that sort of experience. I’ve asked some of the associates, "Why don’t you put some time in at the United States attorney’s office? I can help you." A lot of them have said to me, "Mr. Hundley, I’ve got over $150,000 in student loans." I can only respond, "In that case you’d better stay where you are."
There wasn’t such a great disparity in salaries when I was in Justice, and students didn’t have big student loans back in the early sixties. Particularly in the Kennedy era, I used to go out on recruiting trips and sign on the top students at the nation’s best law schools. They wanted to come to the Kennedy Justice Department. I think Watergate changed that. The fact that government compensation never kept up and that kids have such large student loans drives the best of them here and to other big law firms.
Looking back on your career, is there anything that surprises you
I’m sort of surprised that I’ve been as successful as I have, quite frankly. I was not in the top of my class in law schoolnobody has ever said I’m a great legal scholar. I argued one case in front of the Supreme Court, and they reversed me from the bench. I’ve been lucky, and I’ve had some high-visibility clients. I got Park immunity, Wild acquitted, and my partner Larry Gondelman and I beat the Securities and Exchange Commission for Warren Trepp. A lot of people thought Vernon Jordan would be indicted. They were wrong. I’ve had a fair amount of success. Now, I’ve had a lot of losses, too. At one time they used to refer to a "Hundley Wing" at Allenwood [prison].
What do you attribute the success to?
I think I’m a pretty good trial lawyer. I think juries kind of like me and the judges usually come around. I work hard when I’m trying a case. I really want to win. Maybe I got some of that from Bobby Kennedy. Even when the facts are bad I want to win the case, and I play very, very hard to win.
Are there different considerations when you are trying a high-publicity
I, for one, think that no matter what the court tells jurors, they’re exposed to the publicity. So if you can score some points with the media, that helps. You don’t have that with low-visibility cases. Also, I’ve always had pretty good relations with the press. I have taken certain positions that I think paid off. When I was representing Vernon Jordan, we agreed early in the game that neither of us was going to talk to the press. I think the press understood, since we treated all reporters the same. It worked to our advantage, because I think we dropped off the radar screen with so many of the other lawyers seeking publicity. That’s another thing Williams told me: "Do your talking about the case in the courtroom."
Are you still going into court at this time?
Recently, I represented Warren Trepp; he was Michael Milken’s chief bond trader. I tried that case before the SEC and won it. Over here, obviously, there aren’t as many trials. When I did the Trepp thing I still enjoyed trying a case and winning.
Do you have any plans to retire soon?
Well, I don’t know. I’m afraid to retire. I don’t know what I would do, to tell you the truth. I like what I do, so I don’t think about retirement much. And I would really like to try and win one more big case.