Edward Bennett Williams

Edward Bennett Williams

Edward Bennett Williams was born in Hartford, Connecticut, on 31st May, 1920. He studied law at Georgetown University and eventually became a lawyer. In the early fifties, Williams represented several liberals, socialists and communists before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). This included Carl Foreman, Robert Rossen, Martin Berkeley, Howard Koch, and Harold Hecht. Later he represented Joseph McCarthy during the Senate censure proceedings against him.

Williams also represented William Turner in his legal battle with J. Edgar Hoover. He also helped Warren Hinckle, the editor of Ramparts, during its conflict with the CIA. Turner later claimed: "the Ed Williams I knew was an incorruptible champion of the principle that even the most controversial defendants deserved a competent defense. He was the most impressive courtroom figure I have ever seen."

Williams also worked with Robert Maheu in the defence of a former agent of the Office of Strategic Services, Aldo Icardi, who had been accused of murdering Major William Holohan and stealing $100 million in gold to distribute among Italian partisans. As Warren Hinckle and William Turner pointed out in their book, Deadly Secrets: "Williams and Maheu eventually resolved the case, although not to everyone's satisfaction, on the side of Icardi's innocence, by turning the tables with an evidentiary thesis that the Italian communists had killed the unfortunate major and taken his gold, then attempted to make further postwar capital out of the foul deed by framing an American spy, and an Italian to boot."

Williams gained a reputation of being a mobster lawyer. In 1956 he was hired by Frank Costello who had been convicted of income tax evasion. Williams managed to get him released from prison. Later Costello confessed that ''I've had 40 lawyers, but Ed's the champ.''

Links with organized crime was reinforced when Williams began working for Jimmy Hoffa. In 1958 Robert Kennedy chief counsel for the McClellan Committee, began investigating Hoffa, who had recently been elected as president of the mob controlled Teamster Union. Hoffa hired Williams as his defence attorney. Hoffa was eventually acquitted of the charge of accepting an illegal payment from an employer. Kennedy later claimed that Williams was a major reason why Hoffa was not convicted.

In 1962 rumours began circulating that Bobby Baker was involved in corrupt activities. Although officially his only income was that of an aide to Lyndon B. Johnson, he was clearly a very rich man. Baker was investigated by Attorney General Robert Kennedy. He discovered Baker had links to Clint Murchison and several Mafia bosses. Evidence also emerged that Baker was also involved in political corruption. This included the award of a $7 billion contract for a fighter plane, the TFX, to General Dynamics, a company based in Texas. On 7th October, 1963, Baker was forced to leave his job. Soon afterwards, Fred Korth, the Navy Secretary, was also forced to resign because of the TFX contract.

Bobby Baker employed Williams to defend him against the accusation of corruption. Williams main strategy was to delay the case appearing in court. This was successful and Baker's trial did not take place until January, 1967. Baker was found guilty of seven counts of theft, fraud and income tax evasions. This included accepting large sums in "campaign donations" intended to buy influence with various senators, but had kept the money for himself. He was sentenced to three years in federal prison.

Williams worked closely with Clark Clifford. Apparently Williams told Clifford. "I'm still young enough in spirit to have living heroes, two of them, and you're one.".

In 1967 Williams joined with long-term friend, Paul Connolly to establish the law firm, Williams & Connolly. Over the next few years he had several high profile clients. This included Frank Sinatra, fugitive financier Robert Vesco, Soviet spy Igor Melekh, wealthy businessman Armand Hammer, Senator Thomas Dodd and CIA Director Richard Helms.

According to Arthur Schlesinger (Robert F Kennedy and His Times) Williams was told about the assassination attempts by Sam Giancana on John F. Kennedy while trying to engage him as his lawyer for a fight against the Government. This story was later confirmed by another friend, Robert Maheu.

Williams was also friendly with Ben Bradlee and encouraged him to publish the Pentagon Papers and the investigation into the Watergate case. This brought him into conflict with J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon. According to Evan Thomas (The Man to See): "Before anyone else, Williams exposed the illegal acts of the Federal Bureau of Investigation - the wiretapping, break-ins, buggings, and "black-bag jobs" - that were rotting J. Edgar Hoover's empire from within. Behind the scenes, he played a little-known but critical role in revealing and ultimately reining in the abusive power of Richard Nixon's White House. Williams not only urged Ben Bradlee to print the Pentagon Papers, he helped give The Washington Post editor the courage - and quite possibly, the inside information - to press forward with the newspaper's probe into Watergate when the rest of the establishment press was turning the other way."

In 1975 Williams defended John Connally, who had been accused by Jake Jacobsen of taking bribes while working as Secretary of the Treasury. The jury was not allowed to hear a recording of a conversation that took place between Connally and Richard Nixon in March 1971. On the tape Connally says to Nixon:"It's on my honor to make sure that there's a very substantial amount of oil in Texas that will be at your discretion," the treasury secretary said. "Fine," said Nixon. "This is a cold political deal," Nixon continued. "They're very tough political operators." "And they've got it," Connally said. "They've got it," Nixon agreed. "Mr. President," Connally concluded, "I really think you made the right decision."

Connally was found not guilty. He later said that: "To be accused of taking a goddamned $10,000 bribe offended me beyond all reason." According to Evan Thomas (The Man to See): "Among cynics in the firm, there was a sneaking suspicion that Connally's indignation stemmed from the fact that he had been indicted for taking such a small payoff. The joke around the firm was that if the bribe had been $200,000, Williams would have believed the government, since, in Texas politics, $10,000 was a mere tip."

A sports fan, Williams was part owner and president of the Washington Redskins football team for over 20 years. He also owned the Baltimore Orioles baseball club.

Edward Bennett Williams died in Washington on 13th August, 1988.

Primary Sources

(1) Warren Hinckle and William Turner, Deadly Secrets (1993)

Robert A. Maheu Associates began as an investigative agency in Washington in the early fifties. Almost immediately, as Old Boy luck would have it, Maheu was off to Italy with the great attorney Edward Bennett Williams to investigate one of the more bizarre murder cases of the postwar period. The story of Bob Maheu's first big case is on its own terms fascinating but is also of interest as the precursor of the currents of espionage and politics running deep and silent through Maheu's FBI-0SS-CIA connected civilian career.

Maheu's client was former OSS Lieutenant Aldo Icardi, who had been convicted after the war, in absentia, by an Italian court of the murder of his OSS commanding officer while behind enemy lines on a top-secret mission in northern Italy in 1944. The Icardi case was a real cloak-and-dagger murder mystery, a classic of the fifties' men's-adventure-magazine genre. The victim was Major William Holohan, in civilian life a Securities and Exchange Commission attorney, who had been handpicked by OSS General William "Wild Bill" Donovan to head a team parachuting into the German-held mountains near Milan with a reputed $100 million in gold to distribute among the feuding Italian partisans in an ill-fated effort to bring the war against the Hun to a speedier close. Icardi, a University of Pittsburgh kid from the wrong side of the Ivy League tracks, went along as a translator since the Harvard-educated Holohan knew no Italian. Holohan and the gold subsequently disappeared. While the major was sorely missed, everyone more or less forgot about what happened to him amid the busy-work of winding up the Italian campaign.

The mystery of the missing major remained dormant until 1950. Then a body, said to be the major's, was recovered in lamentable condition from Lake Orta after some guilt-ridden former Italian partisans belatedly confessed to a dark plot to put the major in a watery grave. An Italian court subsequently put the murder case into the squawk-box arena of fifties' anticommunism by charging that the left-leaning Lieutenant Icardi had poisoned and shot Major Holohan and dumped him in the lake because the major, a good Catholic, had been favoring the Christian Democratic guerrillas with his gold at the expense of Icardi's ideological favorites, the red Garibaldini.

Congressional investigations immediately took off in the Cold War-charged atmosphere of Washington. By the time Williams and Maheu joined the frenzy on the side of the beleaguered OSS veteran, the lawmakers had worked themselves into a pother of perjury charges and extradition hearings. However, the investigation by Williams and Maheu eventually resolved the case, although not to everyone's satisfaction, on the side of Icardi's innocence, by turning the tables with an evidentiary thesis that the Italian communists had killed the unfortunate major and taken his gold, then attempted to make further postwar capital out of the foul deed by framing an American spy, and an Italian to boot.

(2) Katharine Graham, Personal History (1997)

It was during this period that Phil got to know Edward Bennett Williams, the famous criminal trial lawyer. He and Williams had met in the early summer of 1957, while Williams was defending Jimmy Hoffa, the powerhouse of the Teamsters, who was accused of bribing one of Senator John McClellan's staff. Phil was riveted by the Hoffa case, which he thought was hopeless and unwinnable...

Phil told me in great detail all about his meetings with Ed, but he didn't bring him home. I remember meeting Ed and his first wife, Dorothy, but a joint friendship didn't develop then; the relationship was between the two men. Ed and I became warm friends only much later. Phil told me about his first meeting with Dorothy, who had been born with a deformed arm. Upon meeting her, Phil did one of those breathtaking things which came to him so naturally. He said, "Hi, kid, what's the matter with your wing?" She apparently loved the honest, benign curiosity, compared with the way many people ignored her arm or looked the other way.

(3) Edward Bennett Williams on Philip Graham (quoted in Katharine Graham's book, Personal History (1997)

We began to talk and we had an instant rapport. Sometimes your chemistry flows and you have an instant relationship with someone. You really understand one another, you can almost talk in shorthand. I was intending to go home to work, because I had a lot of work to do for the next day, but he came home with me and we talked almost all night long... By the end of six hours I felt I knew as much about Phil and he knew as much about me as there was....

(4) Katharine Graham, Personal History (1997)

Ben (Bradlee) was beginning to feel squeezed between the editors and the reporters, who were solidly lined up for publishing and supporting the Times on the issue of freedom of the press, and the lawyers, who at one point suggested a compromise whereby the Post would not publish the Papers on Friday but would notify the attorney general of its intention to publish on Sunday. Howard Simons, who was 100 percent for publishing, summoned the reporters to talk directly with the lawyers. Oberdorfer said the compromise was "the shittiest idea I've ever heard." Roberts said the Post would be "crawling on its belly" to the attorney general; if the Post didn't publish, he would move his retirement up two weeks, make it a resignation, and publicly accuse the Post of cowardice. Murrey Marder recalled saying, "If the Post doesn't publish, it will be in much worse shape as an institution than if it does," since the paper's "credibility would be destroyed journalistically for being gutless." Bagdikian reminded the lawyers of the commitment to Ellsberg to publish the Papers and declared, "The only way to assert the right to publish is to publish."

In the midst of the bedlam, Ben left the room to call his closest friend, Ed Williams, who by now was also a good friend of mine. Ed was in Chicago trying a divorce case, and Ben reached the editor of the Chicago Sun-Times and asked him to send a copy boy down to the court with a message saying he needed to talk to Ed immediately, conveying the idea that this was, as Ben later said, "as serious as anything I've ever faced."

Ed was a great lawyer with a lot of political as well as common sense. The two men talked for perhaps ten minutes, according to Ben, during which Ben, as objectively as he could, told Ed everything that had happened to that point and then waited for a response. Ed finally said, "Well, Benjy, you've got to go with it."

(5) Bobby Baker, Wheeling and Dealing: Confessions of a Capitol Hill Operator (1978)

My trial lasted about three weeks. I was ill with the flu much of the time and on the final day of my direct testimony had to rush from the courtroom to the men's room, where I lost my breakfast. Reading old newspaper accounts of those days, I am astonished at references to how loose and relaxed I appeared: bantering with newsmen, talking politics, guiding a lady who hadn't recognized me to the proper courtroom when she'd asked where they were holding the Bobby Baker trial. I remember tensions and fevers not hinted at in the news accounts.

Edward Bennett Williams orated for almost three hours in his final summation. He is a wizard of words and I found his performance compelling. The jury, too, appeared extraordinarily attentive. I took hope from this. The summations ended about sundown on Friday, January 27, 1967; the jurors received judge Gasch's instructions the following morning. They retired to deliberate about noon on that Saturday.

Though it may have been a self-serving wish, I felt that my chances of acquittal were good. Certainly "reasonable doubt" had been established. The government seemed not to have supplied much corroborating evidence of felonious wrongdoing, either by documentation or untainted witnesses. I had always worked within the system, was of the system, and had confidence in the system. I could not fathom that it might fail me.

I got up early on Sunday and searched newspaper stories for clues as to what journalists thought my fate might be. They were cautious accounts, however, and I gained no clear insights. I still felt light-headed from my bout with influenza and several times dozed in my chair. About 10:30 A.M. word was flashed that the jury was ready to state its verdict.

My wife and my two oldest children, Bobby Jr. and Cissy, joined me in a courtroom that held only a corporal's guard of newsmen and spectators. I searched the faces of the jurors for some inkling of what they'd done with my future. None looked directly at me. This, I had been told, was a bad sign for the defendant. Please, God! I thought. Please, God! In a filmy haze I saw and heard the jury foreman, a government computer programmer named John Buchanan, intone: "Guilty... Guilty... Guilty... Guilty... Guilty... Guilty... Guilty... Guilty."

Newspaper reports said that I sat through the monotonous litany "stone-faced," "stoic," "without visible emotion." Probably that's correct: I have always reacted to dangerous or adverse situations with the outward appearance of calm. Whatever my appearance, however, a hot ball of lead roistered through my gut. My hands shook when I put fire to a cigarette. Guilty! There is no uglier word in the English language...

Ed Williams and other lawyers of my defense team appeared at my home on Van Ness Street about an hour after the verdict. Williams had red, swollen eyes. The instant he attempted to speak to me he started crying again. He did not cry a silent, gentlemanly stream of tears; his thick body shook and jerked almost convulsively as he sobbed. Mucus ran from his nose. I wiped it off, mixed him a stiff drink, and tried to comfort him. "Ed, I could not have been better represented. You worked your ass off. We were victimized by circumstances and it wasn't your fault." Williams was inconsolable, as was the kindly Boris Kostelanetz, the brilliant tax attorney, and CPA Milton Hoffman, each of whom had dedicated himself to my defense.

I don't think Ed's grief was so much for me personally, or because he'd lost a highly publicized case, as it was for the perversions of justice he saw in the prosecution's tactics. He is, and has always been, a stickler for the constitutional niceties and he's outraged when they are violated. When finally he could talk on that dismal Sunday afternoon at my home, he raged not against the verdict so much as how it had been obtained.

(6) Anthony Summers, The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover (1993)

William Hundley, the Justice Department attorney, had a glimpse of the way Costello handled Edgar. It happened by chance in 1961, when Hundley was staying at the apartment of his friend-and the mobster's attorney - Edward Bennett Williams. "At eight o'clock in the morning," Hundley recalled, "there was a knock at the door. There was a guy there with a big hat on, and this really hoarse voice. It was Frank Costello, and he came in, and we sat around eating breakfast.... Somehow the subject of Hoover came up, and Hoover liking to bet on horseracing. Costello mentioned that he knew Hoover, that they met for lunch. Then he started looking very leery of going on, but Ed told him he could trust me. Costello just said, 'Hoover will never know how many races I had to fix for those lousy ten-dollar bets.' He still looked leery, and I guess he didn't want to say much more."

(7) New York Times (14th August, 1988)

Edward Bennett Williams was a celebrated trial lawyer and influential Washington insider whose clients ranged from the teamsters' leader James R. Hoffa to Senator Joseph McCarthy. At the time of his death, Mr. Williams presided over the Washington law firm of Williams & Connolly and was the owner of the Baltimore Orioles professional baseball team. He had also been president of the Washington Redskins professional football team for 20 years.

Mr. Williams was well known to some of the most powerful figures in American public life. President Richard Nixon was overheard on one of the Watergate tapes saying that Mr. Williams should be ''fixed.'' The two men later reconciled.

A large man with a fiercely pugnacious look and direct style, Mr. Williams was known to his friends for his personal toughness and resilience, both in his legal career and in the courageous manner in which he fought his illness.

Wizened clients like the organized crime boss Frank Costello expressed fondness for Mr. Williams. Mr. Costello once said, ''I've had 40 lawyers, but Ed's the champ.''

Mr. Williams, considered a brilliant ''superlawyer'' who stood as a pillar of the Washington establishment, had no particular political power bloc of his own, but Republicans and Democrats sought his friendship and counsel, and he seemed always to be in good standing with the occupant of the White House Oval Office.

(8) Evan Thomas, Washington Monthly (October, 1991)

Michael Milken, the junk bond king, looked stricken. The Justice Department was closing in on the empire he had built out of vision, guile, and larceny. Frightened, Milken had done what many powerful men had done when they had a serious problem. He had done what Senator Joseph McCarthy, Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa, mafia don Frank Costello, LBJ aide Bobby Baker, singer Frank Sinatra, Soviet spy Igor Melekh, industrialist Armand Hammer, New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, Democratic Party Chairman Robert Strauss, Playboy owner Hugh Hefner, Texas Governor John Connally, financier Robert Vesco, Senator Thomas Dodd, CIA Director Richard Helms, Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca, Reverend Sun-Young Moon, and President Gerald Ford had all done before him: He had gone to Edward Bennett Williams.

Williams was not content to be just a great lawyer. He wanted power, and he wanted to be seen as a force for larger ends than the narrow representation of his clients. He was, at least in the beginning, an effective crusader for individual freedom. In the name of civil liberties and protecting the rights of the criminally accused, he helped spark a judicial revolution against unchecked police power in the fifties and sixties. Before anyone else, Williams exposed the illegal acts of the Federal Bureau of Investigation - the wiretapping, break-ins, buggings, and "black-bag jobs" - that were rotting J. Edgar Hoover's empire from within. Behind the scenes, he played a little-known but critical role in revealing and ultimately reining in the abusive power of Richard Nixon's White House. Williams not only urged Ben Bradlee to print the Pentagon Papers, he helped give The Washington Post editor the courage - and quite possibly, the inside information - to press forward with the newspaper's probe into Watergate when the rest of the establishment press was turning the other way.

Yet having exposed the abuse of power, Williams went on to protect it. Apparently without a second thought, Williams defended the very people exposed by the scandals that he had helped unearth. He defended a half dozen private and public powerbrokers from charges brought by the Watergate special prosecutor. He defended CIA Director Richard Helms against accusations that he had authorized an illegal break-in and lied to Congress. He defended the FBI's top specialist against charges of having performed black-bag jobs. And in the secret councils of the White House, he argued against restricting CIA eavesdropping on U.S. citizens.

Williams saw no irony in playing both sides. He was an advocate, and he was intent on winning. If he could expose a scandal and then turn around and get off the people embroiled in it, so much the better. He won both ways. He always had. In the fifties, he had represented communists and fellow travelers before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), while at the same time he represented the greatest red-baiter of them all, Senator Joe McCarthy. Throughout his career, Williams appeared to be involved in a variety of conflicts of interest. But he believed he could represent everyone's interests at once, and he often succeeded in finding a middle way. Certainly he served his own interests. His individual clients were almost always happy as well. But viewed from a distance of years, Williams's ceaseless maneuvering sometimes to add up to one vast zero-sum game.

Williams would defend anyone, he liked to say, as long as the client gave him total control of the case and paid up front. He would represent Mafia dons and pornographers for enormous fees. He would also represent priests, judges, and attractive women in distress for little or nothing. Yet he did not like to represent clients who stood for causes. He thought it was a mistake to mix ideology with law and he worried that political activists would not give him the total control he demanded. He refused to represent Dr. Benjamin Spock and several other antiwar activists indicted for inciting students to burn their draft cards in 1970. "They don't need a lawyer," he scoffed. "They need a toastmaster."

But when necessary, Williams could sound like a true believer. Imploring William F. Buckley to aid in McCarthy's defense in 1954, Williams declared, "We've got to save Joe! It's important to save the country from the communist threat." Buckley recalls that he thought Williams was a "good 100 percent witch hunter." With arched eyebrows, he adds, "and two years later I discovered he was Mr. ACLU." (By 1955, Williams had put some distance between himself and the senator.)

When he had to defend himself, Williams could be very persuasive. The New York Times's Washington bureau chief, Arthur Krock, took a liking to Williams and invited him to dinner one night during the McCarthy censure hearings. Some other prominent reporters were there, and they started in on Williams for defending McCarthy. How could he defend such a terrible man? Williams was tired that night, and a little dour and defensive, recalls columnist Rowland Evans, another guest. After moodily listening to the badgering, he began, "Well, it's a funny thing. A doctor is driving along the road at night, and there's terrible accident. He rushes over. The driver is bloody. The doctor immediately tries to save his life. Or a priest is on a boat and he sees a passenger crushed by a boom. The priest runs over to administer last rites. Neither one of them has asked the character of the victim. But when a lawyer rushes in," Williams looked at his accusers, "this is what happens!" The dinner table quieted. The questioning stopped....

His firm was thriving, his team was winning, and his insider status was secure. But Williams had not won a big, highly publicized criminal trial since he had saved Adam Clayton Powell from jail in 1960. His defeat in the Bobby Baker trial in 1967 still gnawed at him. He had made his reputation as a great trial lawyer and he wanted to prove that he hadn't lost his touch, that he could still dazzle the public by successfully defending a notorious client against stiff odds. Watergate was the great legal as well as moral spectacle of the day, but Williams felt excluded from the main arena. He could not very well defend the same Nixon White House he had sued as counsel to the Democratic National Committee. So Williams was left to represent corporate fat cats who had been caught making illegal campaign contributions. The defense work required Williams's skill at manipulating prosecutors, but it was mostly behind the scenes.

(9) (9)Michael Collins Piper, American Free Press (22nd August, 2001)

Following the establishment of the CIA in 1947, Graham also forged close ties to the CIA to the point that he was described by author Deborah Davis, as "one of the architects of what became a widespread practice: the use and manipulation of journalists by the CIA"- a CIA project known as Operation Mockingbird.

According to Davis, the CIA link was integral to the Post's rise to power: "Basically the Post grew up by trading information with the intelligence agencies." In short, Graham made the Post into an effective and influential propaganda conduit for the CIA...

In her critical biography of Mrs. Graham, Davis never once suggested that Philip had been murdered but has said in interviews that "there's some speculation that either (Katharine) arranged for him to be killed or somebody said to her, 'don't worry, we'll take care of it' " and that "there's some speculation that it might have even been Edward Bennett Williams."

(10) William Turner, email to John Simkin (2007)

In 1951, while still an FBI agent, I fired off letters to members of Congress seeking an investigation of the Hoover regime on grounds it ignored organized crime while pursuing a moribund Communist Party with a vengeance. As I planned, Hoover, who could not abide criticism, fired me. I hopped on a plane to Washington with a short list of attorneys I would try to get to represent me. At the top of the list was Ed Williams, famous for his defense of Jimmy Hoffa and Senator McCarthy. I figured that if he took on clients as controversial as that, he wouldn't be intimidated by the FBI . He took my case. He warned me that we could not prevail in a Civil Service hearing, which turned out to be the case (when I got my FBI file under FOIA, it was revealed that the hearing was rigged}. In the appellate court Ed argued that a government employee who communicated to Congress the manner if which a public agency discharged its public trust was constitutionally protected. By a four to three margin the Supreme Court turned us down. Ed handled my case pro bono on the theory that the FBI's discharge of its duties needed a thorough venting. While the case was still under appeal, Ed offered to hire me as his investigator, but I didn't want to leave San Francisco. He then suggested that I apply for a job with his friend from college days, Robert Maheu, but I was leery of him.

I greatly admired Ed for his willingness to take on the powerful. When I signed on with Warren Hinckle at Ramparts, I asked him for help in a libel matter involving our CIA exposures. He obliged without pay.

I believe my last contact with Ed was circa 1974 when I asked his assistance in getting an interview with his then late partner, Joe Califano. I knew he represented the Democratic National Committee in Watergate, but never heard that he sent messages to Nixon to burn the tapes. When Ford took over he asked Ed to head the CIA but Ed turned the post down, although he was on the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (George H. W. Bush was then appointed). In his later years Ed swung to the right, becoming quite friendly with Reagan. He also represented Mark Felt and Ed Miller on the burglary conviction appeal.

The Ed Williams I knew was an incorruptible champion of the principle that even the most controversial defendants deserved a competent defense. He was the most impressive courtroom figure I have ever seen.