May 16, 2011
Benjamin Brafman: Dominique Strauss-Kahn's Orthodox Jewish attorney
Attorney Benjamin Brafman, lead counsel for IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn who is currently awaiting trial in New York
His image may be in permanent ruin, but whether or not the disgraced IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn will set his sights on the Eiffel Tower anytime soon is largely up to one man: his attorney, Benjamin Brafman.
No stranger to celebrity scandal, the New York-based Brafman has represented stars from all over the famous/infamous continuum, from the rappers Sean "Diddy" Combs and Jay-Z, to pop icon Michael Jackson to various reputed members of the mafia. New York Magazine dubbed him "the man to have on speed-dial when you're in really big trouble."
According to that same 1998 New York profile, Brafman's wife Lynda, a librarian, had nicknamed him H.P. for "high profile". At the time, he was representing "a Talmudic scholar-businessman accused of laundering money for the Cali drug cartel; a retired cop charged with murder; a rabbi charged, with Assemblyman Dov Hikind, of misusing federal funds; and the nightclub impresario Peter Gatien, who [was charged with] running his popular nightspots…as anything-goes drug supermarkets."
The son of Holocaust survivors, Brafman grew up in Brooklyn and Queens and put himself through Brooklyn College night school and then Ohio Northern University Law School, before getting an additional Master of Laws degree from New York University: "Okay, so it's not Harvard," reported New York writer Meryl Gordon, "but Brafman uses his down-to-earth pedigree to put people at ease. He'll even joke about his equally down-to-earth stature (he boldly claims five feet six) to score points with juries. 'He's short, and he uses it well,'" she quotes criminal-defense lawyer Fred Hafetz as saying of Brafman.
Fortunately for Strauss-Kahn, Brafman doesn't cower from the lurid, the depraved, or the perverse. He defended Michael Jackson against those unforgettable child molestation allegations, as well as an alleged member of the Gambino crime family accused of car theft and murder (Brafman got this guy acquitted on 21 of 22 counts, according to The Financial Times). He also got Sean Combs out of a sticky spot, after that infamous nightclub shooting back in 1999, clearing Combs of the illegal weapons and bribery charges that could have marred his career. Despite eyewitness reports that claimed Combs culpable, the incident is a footnote in the bad memories department.
Now all eyes are on Brafman to see what he can do for Strauss-Kahn, the would-be French Socialist party presidential candidate who is now embroiled in an ugly sex scandal that threatens his ruin. Strauss-Kahn is currently awaiting trial on allegations of sexual assault, attempted rape and unlawful imprisonment of a hotel chambermaid. According to ABC News, the complaint filed with the Manhattan District Attorney's Office says "he forcibly touched the housekeeper's breasts, attempted to pull off her panty hose, twice, 'forcibly made contact with his penis and the informant's mouth' and that 'the defendant engaged in oral sexual conduct and anal sexual conduct with another person by forcible compulsion.'" Earlier today, Strauss-Kahn was denied bail because he is considered a potential flight risk.
It's tough enough pitting a lowly chambermaid against a powerful international politico, but with Brafman in the mix, it seems even more unlikely the housekeeper will get a fair shake. In addition to legal skills, Brafman has a reputation for being charismatic, verily persuasive, and "imaginative and clever," as Brafman's colleague, L.A. attorney Mark Geragos put it to The Financial Times. He is, by many accounts, something of a star himself, a guy with real Hollywood style—and a background in performance.
The Financial Times notes:
Mr. Brafman's wit, honed during a youthful stint as a stand-up comedian, has become a hallmark of his courtroom style.
Brafman is also known to be an observant Jew whose father rescued an endangered Torah on Kristallnacht, which Brafman wrote about for the Jewish press in 2007.
When earlier today prosecutors suggested Strauss-Kahn be denied bail because he might flee "like Roman Polanski", Brafman vowed to appeal the ruling.
"This battle has just begun," he told reporters.
And apparently, Brafman knows how to fight. According to New York Magazine:
His detractors see a darker side, accusing Brafman of using underhanded, albeit legal, courtroom tactics to win, and cynically manipulating the press with carefully orchestrated leaks. It's fair to say that Perry Mason had a gentler style. But Brafman is effective, even if he doesn't always play by Marquess of Queensbury rules. So fearsome is his reputation that critics, talking on the phone, sound a lot like Brafman's Mafia clients fearing a wiretap. "I could trash him," sniffs one antagonist, "but I'd rather take the high road."
Despite his track record, Brafman has a tough road ahead. He acknowledged as much in 1998: "The baggage that comes with a remarkable track record," he told New York, "is that people feel that you can pull off an acquittal despite what seems overwhelming evidence. But you can't do it every time."
Read more on Brafman's Jewish background and the rest of the New York profile here:
Brafman was the class clown, a lazy, directionless student who dozed through yeshiva classes. Aaron Brafman, Ben's studious older brother, now an Orthodox rabbi in Far Rockaway, says, "Our mother always worried: What's Ben going to turn into? I was the goody-goody; he used to always be in my shadow."
The two boys and their sisters, Malkie and Shevy, grew up in a house with shadows, the impermeable sadness of a family shattered by the losses of the Holocaust. Their mother, Rose, who died in 1996, fled Czechoslovakia for New York in 1938 at 16, the only one in her family to get papers to leave; her parents and sister were later killed in concentration camps. Ben recalls that he said in her eulogy, "This is the first day my mother is not afraid." Their father, Sol, escaped Vienna with his parents after Kristallnacht in 1939. Shortly after meeting and marrying Rose, he was drafted into the U.S. Army.
After the war, the Brafmans settled first in Williamsburg, then in Crown Heights, and finally in the more upscale Belle Harbor. Sol made a modest living as a production manager for a lingerie company. This was a strict, deeply religious Orthodox household with a classic immigrant work-hard-my-child ethos. To this day, Brafman remains observant, scheduling trial dates around Jewish holidays, taking Saturdays off from work, and leaving the office early on Fridays to try to get home before sundown. "I figure God will understand if I'm trying to save someone's life and I'm home five minutes late," he says.