Plato Cacheris is a 1956 graduate of the Georgetown University Law Center. He served as an officer in the United States Marine Corps from 1951 to 1953, and began his legal career at the U.S. Department of Justice. Subsequently, he established himself as one of the nation’s most preeminent criminal defense lawyers. He has represented clients in some of the nation’s most heavily publicized cases, including Watergate and Iran-contra, and most recently he represented Monica Lewinsky during the investigation and impeachment trial of President Clinton.
What was your first contact with
a lawyer, your earliest memory?
My father was a Greek immigrant and he had a friend who was a well-respected lawyer here in Washington named Achilles Catsonis. He was also a Greek immigrant and I looked up to him. I thought he was a man of learning, distinction, and élan. That sort of started me thinking about becoming a lawyer. But my first ambition was to be a foreign service officer, a diplomat.
Is it true that you wanted to be ambassador to Greece?
Yes, it is true. Ironically, my best friend from high school, Robert Keeley, did become ambassador to Greece. He and I used to walk to Western High School together from the neighborhood around Wisconsin and Massachusetts avenues where our families lived. Bob is the son of a career diplomat, but he always said that he would never join the foreign service. I, on the other hand, became intrigued with becoming a diplomat. In the end, however, it was Keeley who became the career diplomat and was named American ambassador to Greece.
Tell us about your early days.
My family moved to Washington from Pittsburgh when I was in the seventh grade. Interestingly, Pittsburgh at that time had a highly integrated public school system, but when we moved to the District I entered a segregated school system. It was a shocking experience and graphically demonstrated what was then a divided city. Fortunately, things have now changed.
I graduated from Western High School, which is now Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts, in 1947. That fall I enrolled in the Foreign Service School at Georgetown. I planned on taking the foreign service exam after my senior year, but by early summer I was in the Marines. The Korean War broke out in June of 1950. I graduated in 1951 and was therefore eligible for the draft. Accordingly, I enlisted in the Marines officer candidate program.
Why the Marines?
They offered a very attractive package for a commission, so I enlisted and spent 12 weeks at Parris Island, and went to officer candidate school. The most memorable part of my Marine career was the time spent at Parris Island because it was intense. We were treated liked regular recruits and put through a very harsh and rigorous training program. As my tour of duty was expiring, I was solicited to go to Korea if I would extend my tour of duty. Because I had already been accepted at law school, I did not go to Korea.
Was it during your two years in the Marine Corps that you decided
to become a lawyer?
While I was in the Marines I learned that I was going to fall heir to the GI Bill, which would take the burden off my father if I went on to law school. By this time I had changed my mind about going into the foreign service. As a Marine, I served as defense counsel in special courts-martial. One was not required to be a lawyer to represent defendants at this level. This encouraged me to go on to law school.
At the time you started law school, did you have a pretty good
idea of what kind of lawyer you wanted to be?
I was attracted to criminal law, although I can’t tell you why. While I was at Georgetown, I took a course in criminal law that was taught by Edward Bennett Williams, which had a great influence on my thinking. Before Williams came along, criminal defense lawyers were viewed as rather slick characters. Williams had had a lot of compliments thrown his way, but for me the best was that he made the practice of criminal law respectable. As a student, I was very impressed with him.
What did you do after you graduated from law school?
I went to work for the U.S. Department of Justice as a prosecutor. I thought that would be a good way to get into court quickly and get experience doing trials. In my first job with the government I made $5,000 a year. It was at Justice that I first met Bill Hundley, who became my longtime partner. He and I worked together on the prosecution of United States v. Frank, which was a major case at that time.
Then, after three years, I went to the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Virginia. The main reason I made the change was that I wanted to get more trial experience. I remained there for five years.
It’s hard to think of you as a prosecutor.
Actually, I enjoyed it because I was in court all the time.
Why did you leave?
I also had a wife and two kids. After eight years as a prosecutor I was making all of $13,000. So I went into private practice hoping I could make a better living.
Were you a sole practitioner?
No, I joined a small firm in Alexandria, Virginia. Shortly thereafter I was appointed by the court to defend an Air Force sergeant in an espionage case. My brother, now Judge James C. Cacheris, was in private practice then and he was appointed by the court to be my co-counsel. We tried the espionage case to a jury in Alexandria. The case had some interesting and complex legal issues.
At which point did you begin what would become your famous partnership
with Bill Hundley?
Bill Hundley called me in 1970. He said he was leaving Justice and he wanted a partner. Would I join him? I did, and that is a decision I’ve never had occasion to regret. We became Hundley & Cacheris, which lasted until 1987. Edward Bennett Williams was the premier criminal lawyer in Washington at that time. Hundley had a special relationship with Williams. In those days the big law firms scorned criminal work. So when Williams had a conflict, or a case that he couldn’t take, he would call Hundley and refer it to us.
Over your long association with Bill Hundley, you handled a
number of headline cases.
Yes, we did. Bill and I got involved in a number of big criminal cases. One of the biggest was a gambling conspiracy case here in Washington, United States v. Anderson et al., that had 14 defendants-eight cops and six gamblers. The trial lasted three months, and 13 of the 14 defendants were acquitted. Then we were also involved in the Tony Boyle political corruption case. Boyle was the former head of the United Mine Workers, and the trial was held in front of Judge Charles Ritchie. Bill Hundley also represented Tongsun Park, Jeffrey Levitt in the Maryland savings and loan scandal, and Dale Hess in the Governor Mandel case.
Of course, biggest of all was Watergate. John Mitchell, the U.S. attorney general, engaged Hundley to defend him. Due to the magnitude of the case, we both worked on Watergate. We participated in the Senate committee hearings, the criminal trial before Judge Sirica, and the impeachment hearings in the House Judiciary Committee.
At the outset of the case, did you think Watergate was going
to be as serious as it proved to be?
Yes. The allegations were serious, the indictment was serious, and the evidence was quite serious-particularly after the White House tapes corroborated John Dean’s testimony.
So it wasn’t exactly a defense lawyer’s dream?
A defense lawyer’s dream is a winnable case. I did not think Watergate was winnable. By the time we went to trial, we’d been through the Senate hearings, so the principal witnesses had all testified. Of course, the prosecution had the White House tapes to buttress their case. The trial itself was predictable. It ended with the conviction of President Nixon’s close associates, including John Mitchell.
What was Mitchell like? Did he share the perception that the
case was unwinnable?
Mitchell was very likeable, but he never expressed an opinion one way or the other. He was stoic. I think he probably shared my pessimism, but he never said so.
The director of the Bureau of Prisons at that time was Norman Carlson, a wonderful, enlightened, highly competent administrator. After Mitchell had been sentenced to prison, Carlson was very concerned about Mitchell’s safety. Here you had this tough, no-nonsense attorney general getting locked up with federal prisoners. Carlson didn’t know where to put him. He finally settled on a prison in Montgomery, Alabama, that was located on an Air Force base. I flew down with Mitchell and delivered him to the prison. There was never any self-pity, or any recriminations. Later, I learned that the reason Carlson had sent him to Alabama was that the other prisoners were short-timers. They were mostly tax evaders, bootleggers, that sort of thing. No one could look at Mitchell and think, "Hey, here’s the guy who put me here."
Subsequently you were involved in the Iran-contra case. Can
you tell us about that?
Yes. I represented Fawn Hall, who was Oliver North’s secretary. My first objective was to get her immunity from prosecution, which I was able to do in exchange for her testimony. She testified both before the Iran-contra committee on Capitol Hill and at Oliver North’s trial that she had, in fact, destroyed documents. She was very loyal to North and would not tolerate any criticism of him.
To my mind, Iran-contra had much heavier political overtones than did Watergate.
In both Watergate and Iran-contra a lot of lawyers were involved.
Did you ever stop and ask yourself, "Hey, why are all these lawyers
getting involved in criminal acts?"
Yes, I did, and I think that it reflects poorly on the legal profession. There were so many people involved in both Watergate and Iran-contra who should have spoken up and said, "What are we doing here? We should know better. This is illegal." No one spoke up and derailed things when they could have been derailed. As a result, the image of the profession suffered from the heavy involvement of lawyers as defendants and immunized witnesses in these cases.
Why did you dissolve your partnership with Bill Hundley?
In 1987 Bill was approached by Akin Gump and he decided to sign on as a partner there. About the same time, my old friends Bob Bennett and Carl Rauh asked me to join their firm, which was Dunnells, Duval, Bennett & Porter. They had about 40 attorneys, which is considered a midsize firm. To me it was big, but nothing like Akin Gump, which has hundreds of lawyers. Anyway, I signed on with them, and I was at their firm for a little over a year. Eventually, I decided to go back out on my own because I much prefer the independence that comes with being on your own. Right now, I’m practicing with my partners Preston Burton and John Hundley, and Sydney Jean Hoffman, who is our of counsel.
How did you come to represent Monica Lewinsky?
She had originally retained William Ginsburg, and at some point she became dissatisfied with him. Her mother was represented by Billy Martin, and Martin called me and asked if I would be available to talk with Monica Lewinsky. I said yes. Before she came in, I went up to see Jake Stein. He and I have been friends for years, and our offices are in the same building. He said, "Guess what, I’ve been called too." So we made a proposal to represent her together, which she accepted.
After you were retained, you and Jake Stein called a press conference
and then hardly said anything. Why was that?
First, we wanted to announce that she had retained new counsel. Second, we wanted to demonstrate that things would be different in our representation. So we made our announcement and then refused to get into any details. That was a strategy that Jake and I worked out beforehand. We were very much in agreement about how to handle this case from beginning to end. We never had any disagreements.
Was there ever a real danger that Lewinsky would be put on trial?
Absolutely. When I went to see her to discuss representation, I told her, "If you want to plead guilty, I will not represent you." I told her that if the case went to trial, I thought she would win. I also told her it was a case in which I thought we could cut a deal. Which is what eventually happened. We got her transactional immunity, which is very rare. It meant that she could not be prosecuted for anything related to the case. In return, her only commitment was that she would cooperate with the independent counsel and testify truthfully, which she did.
Why did you think she had a winnable case?
At the time President Clinton was telling the country "I did not have sex with that woman." She would not have had to testify at her own trial. So who would you call as a defense witness? President Clinton? Vernon Jordan? That would be a lawyer’s dream. We had a lot of leverage in our negotiations with Ken Starr’s office. Eventually, we got what we wanted. We got transactional immunity and a trial was unnecessary.
Will Monica Lewinsky be able to live a normal life?
I hope so. Unfortunately, she was involved in a relationship with the most powerful man in the world, and that relationship became public. For two years her name was constantly in the newspapers. She’s very distinctive looking, attractive, and the cameras followed her everywhere she went. She was also very young. I hope she’ll be able to move on and lead a happy, rewarding life. But she’s been through a very tough, very unusual experience, no doubt about that.
You’ve been involved in very high-profile cases, from Watergate
through the Clinton impeachment. Have you developed a strategy for
dealing with the media?
The press can be too intrusive at times. Lewinsky is a perfect example of that. As a result, there are times when the best approach is to refuse to play the game, to refuse to say anything. Other times you have to be responsive to the press. You have information that you want to get out. So it all depends on the circumstances of your case. I usually take a reporter’s call, even if I’m not going to say anything that is newsworthy. Reporters have a job to do, and I respect that. Anytime I feel I can help my client by making a public comment, I’ll do it.
Aside from the big three of Watergate, Irancontra, and Lewinsky,
do you have any favorite cases?
The Aldrich Ames espionage case was a very serious matter. As you may recall, Ames was a CIA employee accused of spying on behalf of the Soviet Union and giving the Soviets the names of CIA assets operating in Russia. That was a case I wanted to take to trial because I thought it had some very interesting search-and-seizure issues, some interesting constitutional issue. But whether or not a case proceeds to trial is the client’s decision, not the lawyer’s. You lay out all the options and give your recommendation, and then the client decides. In the Ames case, I pointed out to him that the government had some serious evidentiary problems. But he was very concerned about the fact that his wife had also been arrested and he wanted her treated leniently. So we negotiated a plea arrangement in which she received a five-year sentence and he was given life. She has since served her time and is out now, which is the way he wanted it.
When you obtained transactional immunity for Monica Lewinsky,
the national media stressed your reputation as a deal maker. Is
that because over time you became less interested in going to court?
No, no. My view is that you can only cut a favorable deal if your opposition thinks you can try a case. If you don’t know how to try a case, they aren’t going to give you anything in negotiation.
It’s been 44 years since you received your law degree. What
are the major changes in the profession that you have witnessed?
The sentencing guidelines represent the biggest change in criminal practice in the past 40 years. They have had a chilling impact. Few clients want to risk going to trial anymore. In drug cases the sentences are draconian. There is also a big risk in the white-collar cases. Defendants who used to be eligible for parole if convicted in a white-collar case know that they’re going to go to jail if they’re convicted now. That creates a heavy incentive to cut a deal, if you can do so.
To my mind, the sentencing guidelines are an abomination. They have taken advocacy out of the sentencing process in criminal cases and replaced it with a rigid grid. The human element and discretion has been completely removed. I think that’s wrong and it doesn’t produce justice.
Any other big changes?
Yes. I think there are too many lawyers. The law firms have become bigger and bigger, and the profession has become more of a business. That’s taken some of the fun out of being a lawyer. A lot of young lawyers find themselves grossly disappointed. They want to get out. Personally, I still enjoy it. I’m glad I became a lawyer. But I don’t think I’d enjoy it if I were a young lawyer in a big firm. I’ve been lucky. As I look back on my career, I can’t think of anything that I would have done differently.
Do you plan to retire any time soon?
I’ll retire when the phone stops ringing. As long as clients keep calling, I’ll keep going.
Periodically The Washington Lawyer features a conversation with a senior member of the District of Columbia Bar reflecting on his or her career as a lawyer. The "Legends in the Law" are selected by the District of Columbia Bar’s Publications Committee on the basis of their prominence in their profession and their individual impact on the law and the legal profession in the District of Columbia.