From his modestly furnished and tastefully decorated corner office, Plato Cacheris can look out at Dupont Circle, one of Washington’s most exclusive neighborhoods. In his office, the former U.S. Marine keeps a statuette of a Marine aviator. Not far from that is a framed courtroom drawing of Cacheris at the bar defending one of the most famous spies in American history, Aldrich Ames.
Cacheris is a man of contrasts. He is a legendary lawyer in Washington legal circles, yet few know him beyond the Beltway. The New York Times described him as a lawyer who “loves notorious defendants,” which Cacheris describes as a “fair assessment,” yet he religiously avoids the media spotlight.
The proud child of Greek immigrants, he shows visitors a picture of the town of Nauplia, south of Athens, where his parents came from, which sits alongside pictures of his 4-year-old granddaughter, Nora.
The 77-year-old Cacheris looks at least two decades younger. He is mild-mannered and laughs easily, but is no-nonsense when it comes to fighting for his clients.
Cacheris is the criminal defense lawyer at the center of nearly every Washington scandal since Watergate. He has represented Republicans and Democrats, elected officials, spies, interns, sheiks and lobbyists.
What his clients have in common is that they got into trouble. Big, highly publicized trouble. He has represented former attorney general and Watergate convict John Mitchell, Iran-Contra document stuffer Fawn Hall, spies Ames and Robert Hanssen, and Michael Scanlon, former Tom DeLay aide and Jack Abramoff partner. Oh, yeah, and Monica Lewinsky.
“The reason I enjoy the practice of law so much is that it affords me the ability to help people in trouble, even though their troubles are self-inflicted,” Cacheris says, as he sits in shirtsleeves and suspenders. “Every administration has scandals. Every one. Some are more serious than others. Monica-gate was not as serious as Iran-Contra. Certainly not as serious as Watergate. But every administration has something. They are all human beings. They all make mistakes.”
Chuck Rosenberg is the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. He knows Cacheris as an adversary, mentor and friend.
“It is actually quite simple,” he says. “He is an honest and smart man. That combination is especially valuable in criminal law. We’re a relatively small legal community, much smaller than the community that practices civil law. And while smart is not all that rare, honest is an extraordinarily valuable commodity.
“If Plato told me the sky was green, I wouldn’t look up.”
It is this straightforward approach that has helped Cacheris become an expert at negotiating deals for his clients. “There is as much pleasure talking prosecutors out of a case as talking juries out of a case,” he says. “It’s my style to try to stay on good terms with prosecutors, so the door is at least open. We can talk. It doesn’t become personal.”
Not that he is afraid to go to trial. In 1985 he defended Dr. David Davoudlarian, who was accused in a civil case of killing his wife.
“My client is insensitive, a fool, an ass, a boor,” Cacheris told the jury. “But he is not a cold-blooded strangler.” The case ended with a hung jury and was settled out of court. Cacheris chuckles as he remembers it.
“The jurors are not dumb,” he says. “The evidence came out in that case describing him in a lot of unflattering ways. My point was: OK, he’s not a great guy, but he is not a killer.”
He also represented Sheik Kamal Adham, former chief of Saudi Intelligence, who was about to be indicted for fraud in the BCCI bank scandal in 1991, a scandal that reached into the White House of President George H. W. Bush. To stay out of prison, the Sheik agreed to pay more than $100 million in fines. After the deal was made, Cacheris found himself carrying a hefty check from Saudi Arabia back to the United States.
When he landed at Dulles, he checked “yes” on the customs form where it asked if he was carrying anything larger than $10,000. He shocked the customs officer when he told him exactly how much larger.
“I’m not exactly sure of the amount of the check,” Cacheris recalls. “It was in the millions and certainly the largest check I’d ever seen. I was not detained at Customs. When I explained the circumstances surrounding the check, namely that it was in payment of a fine and I was going to be delivering it to the New York district attorney, I was welcomed into the U.S.” Cacheris was on another interesting flight when he accompanied his client, former U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell, to prison after he was convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury in the Watergate case. “He had a friend who had a private plane,” Cacheris says of Mitchell. “We got on the plane in Dulles and flew to the prison in Montgomery, Alabama. Mitchell was very cool about it, very calm. I was more concerned than he appeared to be.”
Watergate was Cacheris’ first famous case. After graduating from Georgetown Law School in 1956 he worked in the Justice Departments of both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. He eventually went into private practice with another Justice Department veteran, Bill Hundley. They practiced together for 18 years.
Mitchell came to Hundley for representation, and Cacheris worked on the case with his partner. The trial lasted three months and included four other defendants. (Four of the five were found guilty with one conviction overturned on appeal.) Cacheris was surprised Mitchell was not as surly as his reputation.
“Unlike the public persona, which I think is true of most people, he was really a nice guy,” he says. “He was intelligent, realistic. He was more than helpful to his lawyers and didn’t direct the case.”
But if there was one thing Mitchell was tough about, it was his refusal to make a deal.
“He wasn’t interested in talking about Nixon,” Cacheris says. “Some defendants are like that, and you have to respect them. Would John Mitchell try to get himself out of a case? Of course. Would he do it at the expense of others? No.”
So they went to trial. “I’m not sure he believed he was not guilty,” he says. “I think he realized that the environment of that time indicated that there would be big trouble in that case.”
And there was. But it put Cacheris on the map. An ardent tennis player, Cacheris was able to build a tennis court at his home after the case, which a reporter from The Los Angeles Times nicknamed the John Mitchell Memorial Tennis Court.
It has been reported that Mitchell never fully paid his $300,000 legal bill. Cacheris is diplomatic: He says the late AG paid “a portion of his legal fees.”
Cacheris is also famous for getting immunity deals for two of the most famous femme fatales in Washington, D.C., history: Fawn Hall and Monica Lewinsky.
Hall worked as a White House secretary for Oliver North, shredding and smuggling documents out of the White House for him. She was blond and beautiful, and the press had a field day with her.
“I liked Fawn very much,” Cacheris says. “We got along very well. We are still friends. She was very loyal, very reluctant to testify against anybody. But when given my advice that you have to look out for yourself, she followed instructions.” He helped her get immunity from the independent counsel in exchange for her testimony.
Lewinsky’s legal situation was more problematic. Special prosecutor Kenneth Starr had her talking about her relationship with President Clinton on tape. He wanted her to testify. FBI agents grilled her. She refused to talk to them.
“She didn’t do it,” he says. “Give her credit. She was a young kid at the time. Most kids would have collapsed.”
Making matters worse, Lewinsky’s first lawyer, Los Angeles malpractice attorney William H. Ginsberg, got into a public shouting match with Starr. Cacheris took over Lewinsky’s representation along with another famous Washington criminal attorney, Jacob A. Stein. (Stein was also at the defense table during the Watergate trial, representing Ken Parkinson, the one defendant the jury acquitted.)
“It was getting to the point where she was starting to feel that she was going to be prosecuted,” he says of Lewinsky. “She was concerned about being prosecuted, whereas when Fawn came to us, that was not on the horizon. That was the difference. Monica was in serious jeopardy because they had her on tape.”
Cacheris and Stein paid a friendly visit to Starr, whom they both knew well from the Washington legal community. Six weeks later, Lewinsky had her immunity deal and was ready to testify.
“One problem Plato has to deal with is that he is sometimes the second lawyer when the first one has failed,” says Robert Keeley, who served as U.S. ambassador to Greece from 1985 to 1989 and has known Cacheris since they were high school pals. “The person in trouble is kind of desperate. Plato has to pick up the pieces and do damage control. … He often has one strike against him.”
Fortunately for his clients, Cacheris has savvy both inside and outside the courtroom. Among his many skills is a mastery of handling the press. He’s unflappable under the glare of hot lights.
“Yeah,” Cacheris says, smiling. “Jacob and I went out and said, ‘We’re on the case, goodbye,’” he recalls of his first time meeting the throng in the Lewinsky case. “The next time we went out, we said, ‘We got immunity, goodbye.’”
Cacheris remembers how the media scrutiny during Watergate was so intense that the lawyers and defendants could not go to lunch during the trial. “We would send Mitchell’s chauffeur out to get sandwiches,” he says. “We had standing orders and he would go out and get the sandwiches and we’d eat in the courthouse.”
But that was nothing compared to Monica-gate.
“Our building was surrounded,” he says, pointing out the window at Dupont Circle. “You couldn’t go in or out without a camera in your face. I’d drive in the garage and there would be a cameraman there. I’d go out to lunch and there would be a cameraman there.
“One afternoon, they were all sitting out there. It was a Friday and I wanted to go to the beach. So I went down and said, ‘Now look, guys, she’s not coming today. I’m going to the beach. I’m not lying to you. Now go home.’ They were all appreciative.”
Being a media star is not something he ever wanted.
“Plato does not have the need to be a public figure,” Keeley says. “His focus is on the client. If he thinks it will help the client, he will return phone calls, but he is not looking for a TV appearance.”
The Spies Who Loved Him
Besides political scandals, Cacheris has also been involved in two high-profile espionage cases: one involving Aldrich Ames, the other Robert Hanssen. Ames worked for the CIA and Hanssen for the FBI; both spied for the Soviet Union.
Hanssen admitted to being a spy for 20 years and receiving $1.4 million for his services, which was so damaging an admission that Attorney General John Ashcroft spoke about imposing the death penalty.
“They both did terrible harm to the country,” Cacheris says. “There is no question about that. Did it concern me representing these guys? Yes. On the other hand, I was appointed, and I had to do the best that I could.”
In both cases this meant making deals in which his clients agreed to plead guilty. They both accepted life sentences and accepted government consideration for their wives. (Ames’ wife, who also faced criminal charges, accepted five years in prison; Hanssen’s wife was able to keep the survivor’s portion of her husband’s FBI pension and the family home.)
“I have always found espionage cases to be sporting,” he says. “The game of espionage is an event. We do it. They do it. And some people get caught.
“Look, I didn’t like what they did, either one of them. But on the other hand, they had done it. The other side was doing it to us. And we were doing it to them. There you go.”
Ready for the Next One
Cacheris shows no signs of slowing down. He stays busy outside of work—he and his wife of 51 years, Ethel, have two children (one of whom, Lisa, is a lawyer in the Justice Department) and a granddaughter, Nora—but he still craves the courtroom. “I enjoy the combat with prosecutors,” he says.
And while they may not relish facing him, they respect him. Just ask Rosenberg. “He has an impressive career and he is not done yet,” he says.
Which is good news for the next person to go through the ringer of a D.C. scandal. An honest and smart criminal defense lawyer is just a phone call away.