Alan Dershowitz defended O.J. Simpson, Mike Tyson and Jeffrey Epstein, and along the way he earned a reputation as an attorney who stood up for the rights of men accused of rape.
Now he’s set to deliver a keynote speech to the annual convention of the Alaska Bar Association, which will pay him what the association’s board president, Rob Stone, says is a discounted fee of $15,000.
Some members are not pleased, citing Alaska’s title as the state with the highest rate of sexual assault in the country. And in light of the pushback in recent days, the bar association’s board of governors is set to reconsider Dershowitz’s selection at a special meeting next week.
“In a state like Alaska that has grave problems with violence towards women, violence towards children — including sexual violence — it’s just 100% the wrong message to send,” said Scott Kendall, an Anchorage attorney who previously served as chief of staff to former Gov. Bill Walker. “My reaction was, ‘No way on earth would I go to that dinner.’”
Dershowitz has a long and storied career as a defense attorney and Harvard University law professor, and he first came to prominence as an advocate for civil liberties, free speech and the mentally ill. He most recently worked as part of President Donald Trump’s defense team during Congressional impeachment proceedings, but he’s also a Democrat who worked for Bill Clinton during that impeachment.
Over the past year, though, Dershowitz has been increasingly scrutinized for his connection to Epstein, the wealthy financier who was accused of sex trafficking before apparently killing himself in a Manhattan jail.
Dershowitz was a friend of Epstein’s who also worked for him in a case in Florida in the mid-2000s. Dershowitz has since said he regrets taking the case.
The FBI had identified at least 34 of Epstein’s victims and prepared an indictment that could have led to a lifetime prison term, according to a report in The New Yorker. But Dershowitz helped negotiate a secret plea deal, for two felony charges of soliciting prostitution, which resulted in an 18-month sentence that allowed Epstein to work from a nearby office six days a week. (A woman later sued Epstein claiming that he coerced her into sex acts while on that work release program.)
Two women also say they had sex with Dershowitz at Epstein’s direction — accusations that Dershowitz has strenuously denied. He’s labeled one of them — sex-abuse victim Victoria Roberts Giuffre — as a “prostitute,” a “bad mother” and a “serial liar” who “made her own decisions in life,” The New Yorker reported.
Dershowitz has acknowledged having a massage at Epstein’s home, though he says it was from a “fifty-year-old Russian woman named Olga” and that “I kept my underwear on.”
Stone, the bar association president and an Anchorage trial lawyer, said it was his job to find a speaker for the annual convention. He first tried to recruit Anthony Kennedy, the retired U.S. Supreme Court justice, but when Kennedy wasn’t available, he decided to try to find a trial lawyer instead.
He agreed to speak at a discount from his normal fee of $35,000, Stone said.
“Professor Dershowitz has a remarkable career as a trial lawyer,” Stone said in a phone interview. “You look at his resume, from a teacher and trial lawyer standpoint, and he certainly fit what we were looking for in a keynote speaker.”
Stone said he was aware of controversy surrounding Dershowitz’s representation of Trump and Epstein, and he acknowledged that “certainly, Jeffrey Epstein did some horrible, horrible things.”
But, Stone added, “Criminal defense lawyers are often guilty by association with the clients that they represent.”
The full board of the bar association, which has more than 4,000 members and annual dues of $660, was aware Dershowitz had been invited, Stone said. He added that he does not recall any in-depth discussion about the matter.
In recent days, several Alaska attorneys have questioned the decision.
Kendall, in a phone interview, said he doesn’t take issue with Dershowitz’s politics or representation of Trump. And he acknowledged that many of Dershowitz’s polarizing positions have come in the course of his professional representation of his clients.
But, Kendall added, the keynote is a platform that the bar association should reserve for someone more deserving.
“I could think of dozens or more current or former jurists in Alaska, former Supreme Court justices here,” he said. “To heap honor on someone who, at a minimum, I think your bar has mixed feelings about — I think it’s just inappropriate.”
Kendall said he hopes the bar’s board will spend some time reading about Dershowitz’s history, engage in some “introspection” and realize that “this is the wrong way to go.”
Not all bar association members are lobbying for Dershowitz’s invitation to be revoked. Mike Kramer, a Fairbanks attorney who’s represented victims of people accused of sexual abuse, said one of Dershowitz’s books on civil liberties inspired him to become a lawyer.
“You don’t have to agree with somebody on all topics to understand that they can be a dynamic speaker, and motivate serious conversation among people who might not share the same ideas,” Kramer said. “Everybody deserves a defense, and he’s provided a defense to some notorious people. But I don’t think that renders him unfit to address a collection of lawyers — many of whom have represented some unsavory people at some points in their careers.”
Stone, the bar association president, said it remains uncertain whether the convention will even be held, given the COVID-19 pandemic.
He added that several people contacted him over the weekend about Dershowitz’s scheduled speech, and since then, he said he’s spent 15 hours researching Dershowitz’s background.
Stone said he’s not sure the research has caused him to have second thoughts about the invitation. But he added that he welcomes the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault, and thinks the bar association’s board will make the “right decision” at their meeting tentatively scheduled for next week.
“We need to look at this issue very carefully and give it a lot of thought at this board of governors meeting, and see how the views of people are affected by our selection of Professor Dershowitz as a keynote speaker and try to balance a number of things — balance his rights as a speaker and citizen of the country, versus the rights of others as citizens and members of our society,” Stone said. “I think it’ll be an interesting discussion.”