Plato Cacheris, the Washington lawyer of choice for accused spies, wayward sheikhs and notorious figures in scandals, from the Watergate affair to the sexual peccadilloes of President Bill Clinton, died Thursday at a rehabilitation center in Alexandria, Virginia. He was 90.
The cause was complications of pneumonia, his daughter, Lisa Burnett, said.
Cacheris (pronounced ka-CHAIR-ess) specialized in cases that captivated the nation, including those of Robert Philip Hanssen and Aldrich Ames, who were convicted of spying for the Soviet Union and Russia, and Edward J. Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor who illegally disclosed troves of national secrets to journalists and fled to asylum in Moscow.
Victory, to Cacheris, often did not mean acquittal. For Hanssen and Ames, who faced the death penalty for espionage, it meant life sentences negotiated by their lawyer in plea deals with prosecutors. For Snowden, who retained Cacheris in 2013 after being charged with espionage, it has meant exile in Russia, out of reach of prosecutions and prison in America.
And for clients like Monica Lewinsky, Clinton’s Oval Office mistress, and Fawn Hall, the National Security Council secretary who shredded documents for her boss, Lt. Col. Oliver North, in the Iran-contra scandal during the Reagan administration, the arrangements meant freedom from prosecution in exchange for their testimony.
In 1998, Lewinsky faced perjury charges by the independent counsel Kenneth Starr for previous denials that she had carried on a sexual relationship with Clinton. Against expectations, Cacheris and his co-counsel, Jacob A. Stein, won immunity for Lewinsky in return for her admissions in court that she had had an affair with the president and had made a pact with him to lie about it. Clinton was impeached, but acquitted in the Senate on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.
Hall’s testimony — “We shred everything” — before a congressional committee in 1987, and later at North’s criminal trial, offered vivid accounts of destroying documents and smuggling them out of the White House in her clothing on North’s orders. But his convictions for illegally selling arms to Iran to fund right-wing guerrillas fighting a leftist regime in Nicaragua were all reversed on appeal.
“It’s almost a good-cop, bad-cop team,” Paul Rothstein, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, told The New York Times, referring to Cacheris and Stein. “They both shine in the courtroom and in making deals, but Plato is more garrulous, more talkative, more slap-on-the-back, hail fellow well met — but with the threat that ‘I could beat you up bad if I have to.’”
Although peers credited Cacheris with spectacular deal making on behalf of clients, he offered a more modest self-assessment in the 2007 edition of the directory “Washington D.C. Super Lawyers.”
“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,” he said. “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.”
In the Watergate scandal, Cacheris and his law partner, William G. Hundley, shared a losing defense of Attorney General John N. Mitchell, their first big-name client, who had refused to cut a deal for himself or to testify against President Richard M. Nixon. Paying the price, Mitchell was convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury in 1975 and sentenced to 2 1/2 to eight years in prison for his role in the Watergate break-in and cover-up. But he served only 19 months before being released for medical reasons.
Cacheris, who admired Mitchell’s unbending loyalty to Nixon, accompanied his client on a private plane to a minimum-security prison in Montgomery, Alabama, where he served his sentence. “Mitchell was very cool about it, very calm,” Cacheris recalled. “I was more concerned than he appeared to be.”
In 1979, Rep. Michael Myers, a Pennsylvania Democrat in his second term in Congress, was arrested in Arlington, Virginia, after brawling with a security guard at a motel; the incident began when Myers was told to turn down the music at a party he was having. Charged with assault and battery, Myers called Cacheris, who persuaded him to plead guilty to a misdemeanor of disorderly conduct.
A year later, when the FBI sting operation known as Abscam broke, Myers called Cacheris again. He had been charged with taking a $50,000 bribe, on videotape, from an undercover agent posing as an Arab sheikh in return for a promise of political favors. There was little Cacheris could do. Myers, one of a dozen public officials snared in the sting, was convicted of bribery and conspiracy, sentenced to three years in prison and expelled from the House of Representatives.
Another sheikh — this time a real one — Kamal Adham of Saudi Arabia, a former head of Saudi intelligence, hired Cacheris in 1992 as he was about to be indicted in the multibillion-dollar fraud and conspiracy case surrounding the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, an international bank registered in Luxembourg, in the secret takeover of the First American Bank of New York.
Cacheris negotiated a deal with prosecutors for the sheikh to testify against Clark Clifford, a venerable Washington lawyer, and his law partner, Robert A. Altman, the chairman and president of First America, both of whom faced charges of perjury for denying knowledge of the takeover. Despite the sheikh’s testimony, they were not convicted, but they agreed to forfeit a total of $5 million in a settlement.
In exchange for his testimony, the sheikh was allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge and pay a fine of $105 million. Cacheris carried the big check from Saudi Arabia to Dulles International Airport and marked “yes” on a customs form that asked if he was carrying more than $10,000. The customs officer was stunned when he saw the check, made out to a prosecutor’s office. But, as Cacheris later told reporters, “I was welcomed into the U.S.”
Plato Cacheris was born in Pittsburgh on May 22, 1929, to Greek immigrants, Christos and Phaedra (Economou) Cacheris. They moved to Washington when Plato and his younger brother, James, were boys. The elder Cacheris was a founder of a chain of Washington waffle shops, and Plato and James, who became a federal judge, worked in one as they grew up in Washington.
Plato graduated from Western High School in Washington in 1947. He then attended Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, with the vague idea of someday becoming the United States ambassador to Greece. But he had taken some undergraduate law courses, and by the time he earned a bachelor’s degree with honors in 1951, he was more interested in law as a profession.
He served two years in the Marine Corps. Because he had legal training, he was assigned to defend accused Marines in court-martial cases. (He later earned the rank of captain in the Marine Reserves.) After mustering out, he attended the Georgetown University School of Law and received his juris doctor in 1956.
In 1955, Cacheris married Ethel Dominick. They had two children, Lisa and James Byron, who survive him, as does his wife. He is also survived by his brother and a granddaughter.
After law school, he joined the Justice Department as a prosecutor in the foreign agents registration section. From 1960 to 1965, he was the first assistant United States attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.
Leaving government service, Cacheris joined Baker & McKenzie, one of the world’s largest law firms, in Washington, but found the firm’s size stifling and in 1970 went into partnership with Hundley, a former Justice Department colleague. From 2005 until his retirement in 2018, he was a partner of Trout, Cacheris & Solomon.
He had homes in Alexandria, Virginia, and Bethany Beach, Delaware.
On the last day of his presidency in 2001, Clinton was liberated from the threat, after leaving office, of another indictment for perjury and obstructing justice in the Lewinsky case. In a settlement with a special prosecutor to avoid any future charges, Clinton admitted that he had given false testimony under oath and agreed to surrender his law license for five years.
After the settlement was announced, Cacheris spoke to Lewinsky one last time. He said that she felt “greatly relieved that this is finally over, and that she won’t have to testify again in another proceeding.”
“I felt I had the sword of Damocles hanging over my head,” Lewinsky told him.