The Most Interesting Man in the World
Gerald Richman danced at the LBJ White House, escorted Nixon to a swearing-in, fought for Al Gore’s elective life, and jet-setted with an international arms dealer
Published in 2020 Florida Super Lawyers magazine
on June 4, 2020
Updated on July 7, 2020
Rummaging through boxes on his office floor, Gerald Richman pulls out mementos from more than a half-century of legal practice, public service and political activism. Not to mention international intrigue. He calls it his “rogue’s gallery.”
He shows off a few photos of himself in his 20s, when he was White House aide to President Lyndon Johnson: one with the president and Lady Bird; another standing at attention as Johnson and the Shah of Iran walk past, and one watching the president sign a bill creating the Key Biscayne National Monument.
“Lady Bird was delightful, but LBJ was always in command,” Richman recalls, a trace of his native Brooklyn detectable in his voice. “He wasn’t the kind of guy you made small talk with.”
He holds up a 1986 letter, written by former President Richard Nixon to Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, introducing ex-Attorney General John Mitchell as an agent to negotiate arms deals involving Richman’s world-famous arms dealer-client, Sarkis Soghanalian.
He finds national news stories about his close loss in an ethnically charged congressional election in Miami in 1989, when he ran as a Democrat against Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. GOP strategist Lee Atwater had declared he wanted to elect the first Cuban American to Congress. Richman responded at the time, according to The Miami Herald, “This seat should be the seat for all of the people. It’s not a Cuban American, it’s not a black seat, it’s not a white seat—it’s an American seat.”
Ros-Lehtinen and many of her supporters accused him of being anti-Cuban. Richman recalls he received death threats and had to have police protection on election night. His wife, Gwen, wouldn’t let him run for political office again, he says.
Then there was his year—actually, a year and a half—as Florida Bar president, mostly in 1984. Richman says the Bar president had a heart attack the day after Richman was sworn in as president-elect, so he had to fill in for an extra six months. That same year, he handled five major jury trials, one of his two daughters was born, his father died unexpectedly, and his secretary was murdered by her estranged husband, whom Richman had unsuccessfully tried to get committed to a mental institution.
A decade after that, following numerous thefts and burglary attempts at his Miami Beach home, Richman relocated his family to Palm Beach County and opened a north branch of his law firm, Richman Greer. He hired a driver for the torturous commute to Miami to handle cases.
The boxes also contain many news clips detailing how Richman fell just short of winning a case about irregularities in the handling of Seminole County absentee ballots that could have handed Democrat Al Gore just enough votes to win the 2000 presidential election. “The court, in effect, said, ‘Wrong, but no remedy,’” Richman says. “We won the battle, but lost the war.”
If that seems like enough for a novel, you’d be happy to hear that Richman is now working on an autobiographical novel. But mostly, he is looking forward to a new phase of his law practice.
This January day, the trim, genial 78-year-old—who plays tennis four times a week, went out on the boat with his three grandchildren the previous weekend, and boasts he did his usual 112 pushups in the morning—is preparing to join a new firm, Fisher Potter Hodas, in March. He’s enthusiastic about a batch of new cases, including a major whistleblower claim that could take years to pay off.
And he has volunteered as a lead attorney for Palm Beach County Democrats for any election law issues that might arise this year.
“He’s a workaholic. He was always at full throttle,” says Alan Greer, his law partner for 50 years at the firm eventually known as Richman Greer, which merged last year with Day Pitney.
“I like being a trial lawyer,” Richman says. “I love contingency-fee cases where the potential is big and the risk is big. I’ve got a case now that’s worth either zero or billions. That’s fun stuff.”
Neal Sonnett, a prominent white-collar criminal defense attorney in Miami, says Richman has a remarkable ability to rapidly master complex facts, as he did when collaborating with Sonnett in defending Soghanalian in 1991.
“Trying a federal criminal case is very different from trying a civil case,” notes Sonnett. “He picked it up quickly. If I had my top 10 list of lawyers I most respect over the last 50 years, he’d be on it.”
Richman, whose family moved from Brooklyn to Miami Beach when he was 9, calls himself “a completely accidental lawyer.”
He thought he would follow his father into hotel and real estate development, and got a bachelor’s degree in building construction through an ROTC scholarship. But given the rising Cold War tensions in 1961, he got a scholarship to the University of Florida’s law school—never having previously thought about becoming a lawyer—which meant a draft deferment. After graduating, he clerked in Orlando for U.S. District Judge George Young, who became a mentor.
Richman then joined the Army’s JAG in Washington, D.C., to fulfill his ROTC commitment, arguing court-martial appeals. He also volunteered his time working on bills with Miami Congressman Claude Pepper, whose seat he sought after Pepper’s death decades later.
The dapper young JAG also served as a social aide at White House parties, helped by the Arthur Murray dance lessons he’d taken in his teens. As a member of the aide corps—playfully dubbed the “25 gigolos” around the White House—Richman danced with, among others, the president’s daughter, Lynda Bird.
In 1967, he got the call to go to Vietnam, but at the last minute was reassigned to South Korea, where he again argued court- martial cases. When North Korea seized the USS Pueblo and it looked like the U.S. might go to war with that communist nation, his girlfriend offered to hide him in the countryside where her mother lived.
He finished his tour in D.C., working on jury instructions for courts martial and also back at the White House, as a staff aide. When LBJ chose not to run for re-election, Richman decided to return to the Miami area and practice law—but not before fulfilling his final duty as White House aide: escorting newly elected President Nixon to his Cabinet’s swearing-in ceremony.
Warned that Miami law firms wouldn’t promote Jews to partnerships, Richman nevertheless went to work in February 1969 for a prominent civil litigation firm: Frates, Fay, Floyd & Pearson. Two years later, when Nixon appointed Peter Fay to a federal judgeship, the firm gave part of Fay’s equity share to Richman and three others. It eventually became Richman Greer.
“I knew from the start Gerry would turn out to be a good lawyer, and he turned out to be a great lawyer,” says Fay, now senior judge on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where he was appointed by President Gerald Ford.
Sidney Stubbs, a veteran litigator at Jones Foster in West Palm Beach, recalls staying at Richman’s apartment when he drove down from Palm Beach County to work cases with him in Miami.
“He’d come home from the office at 6:30, take a nap, then take me out to the nightclubs,” says the straitlaced Stubbs, whose family and friends teasingly call him Mr. Excitement. “I was married with two kids. That wasn’t what I was accustomed to.”
Richman himself settled down in 1981, marrying his wife, Gwen, and starting a family. Early in his career, he became a leader in condominium law, at first representing condo associations in challenging developer contracts unfavorable to buyers, then switching to the developer side to defend their 99-year leases on condo recreational facilities.
One of his favorite victories came in the mid-1970s, when he went up against four Federal Trade Commission lawyers who argued that those leases were an antitrust violation. After a three-week trial before an administrative law judge, the FTC dropped its test case, realizing it was going to lose.
One of Richman’s most painful losses in that period came when he represented the plaintiff in a medical malpractice case against famed trial attorney Bob Montgomery, who hadn’t yet switched to plaintiff’s work. The jury deadlocked, and the judge ordered the jurors to try to reach a decision. They came back with a defense verdict. Afterward, Richman says, Montgomery told him that he couldn’t have lost with this particular jury.
Despite that experience, Richman is a fervent advocate of civil jury trials, which he has promoted in foreign countries including Germany that don’t have them.
“I love juries,” says Richman. “Occasionally I see a judge I’m comfortable with. But I would much prefer a jury. The best system is two reasonably matched lawyers before a neutral panel. You have to read jurors’ body language, how they react to questions and how they’re reacting to you. You can’t always tell. It’s more a matter of feeling.”
“He’s very good at reading the judge or the jury,” Greer says. “And he’s good at adjusting his style. There are judges you can argue with and judges you can’t. He will figure that out real quick.”
That is clear during a January hearing on whether Richman failed to disclose a discovery document.
Richman tells Palm Beach Circuit Judge James Nutt the document might have been missed during the chaos of his firm’s recent merger, but that he did not know the other side hadn’t received it and had no motive to withhold it because the document helped his case.
He reminds the judge that he formerly chaired the Florida Bar’s ethics committee.
Nutt issues only a gentle admonishment. “These missteps happen,” he says. “I will take it seriously if this happens again.”
Richman then banters with Nutt over the judge’s use of reading glasses.
Outside the courtroom, Richman expresses mild irritation at the attorneys’ motion, attributing it to their desire to remove him from the case and improve their chances of winning. “I’ve never been in the position of someone trying to hold me in contempt,” he says. “It’s annoying.”
Scott Hawkins, a former Florida Bar president who has opposed him in several cases, says Richman understands when to play it low-key. “I always respected his understanding of optics,” Hawkins says. “He’s very wise. You make your points, but don’t put a stick in the other guy’s eye.”
A phone conference in January in a long-running case illustrates that talent for persuasion. Richman listens carefully, leaning forward in his chair as the opposing attorney offers a list of reasons why his client can only afford a low-ball settlement offer.
Richman, in a non-confrontational tone, raises a series of concerns, including the fact that several outside parties with financial interests in the case must be consulted, and that satisfying them would require significantly upping the number.
“You put a few wrinkles I hadn’t thought about,” the opposing attorney concedes. “We need to think about a better path.”
While many lawyers nearing 80 are looking for a soft landing, Richman, unlike longtime partner Greer, opted against an of counsel position with Day Pitney. Instead, he chose to join a smaller firm, which focuses on family law and handles major business litigation arising from big-money divorces. Richman handles the business and major class-action litigation.
Being Florida, it’s a good bet there will be litigation arising from the 2020 presidential and congressional elections. Richman still rues the loss of his 2000 lawsuit, which could have changed history. As for this year’s elections, Richman is ready to jump in if needed. Meanwhile, it’s nose to the grindstone.
Says Greer: “He loves proving he can still do it.”
Call to Arms
International arms dealer Sarkis Soghanalian was Gerald Richman’s favorite client. The mustachioed Armenian Lebanese businessman lived in a world of glamour, danger and high-level political intrigue.
Once in the mid-’80s, the late Soghanalian’s private jet, with Richman and wife Gwen aboard, made an unscheduled landing in Washington, D.C. A limousine pulled up and Richman was introduced to former U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell and then-Major Jack Brennan, Nixon’s top aide at his San Clemente, California, estate. The plane continued to Paris, where Soghanalian introduced Richman to former Vice President Spiro Agnew.
Richman says Soghanalian was working with Nixon, Mitchell and Agnew to supply arms sourced from Romania to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq regime, which the U.S. at the time was quietly backing against Iran. In the ’70s and ’80s, Richman says, Soghanalian helped in President Reagan’s covert war against Nicaragua.
Richman first represented him in a 1978 civil fraud case. Richman and Neal Sonnett later represented him on federal criminal charges of conspiring to sell helicopters to Iraq against UN sanctions. He was convicted but released for time served after helping the Secret Service’s investigation into Iranian counterfeiting of $20 bills.
“I had no issues representing him,” Richman says. “He said everything he did was in the interests of the U.S. and I believed him.”