“Let me just say this: I don’t seek out the high-profile cases, but any lawyer who would tell you they don’t want a high-profile case wouldn’t be telling you the truth,” said Kenneth Thompson. “If you look at my background, yes, I’ve done some high-profile cases, but I’m not a high-profile guy.” He was sitting behind his desk in the sleek law offices of his firm, Thompson Wigdor, which currently represents Nafissatou Diallo, the victim of an alleged sexual assault at the hands of ex-I.M.F. chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
A month earlier, however, at an impromptu press conference on the steps of the Manhattan Supreme courthouse, a high-profile guy is exactly what Mr. Thompson looked like. He spoke in the cadence of a seasoned trial attorney as he described the alleged events of May 14. In graphic detail, he narrated the account of the assault Ms. Diallo alleges to have suffered at the hands of Dominique Strauss-Kahn in room 2806 of the Midtown Sofitel.
“She was told no one was inside that room,” Mr. Thompson intoned, “and she went into that room believing that no one was inside that room. And then Dominique Strauss-Kahn came running out of one of those rooms, naked, towards her. And he grabbed her breasts first and started to attack her. He then grabbed her vagina with so much force that he hurt her. He grabbed her vagina with so much force that he bruised her vagina. When she went to the hospital later that day, the nurses who examined her saw the bruises on her vagina that were caused by Dominique Strauss’s hand …
“We believe that the district attorney is laying the foundation to dismiss this case, anyone can see that,” he added with finality. “We don’t have confidence that they are ever going to put Dominque Strauss-Kahn on trial.”
Repeating points for emphasis, and stopping to emphasize to reporters “and this is important,” he shaped the sordid story. It was uncomfortable to hear—no doubt his intention. By the 10-minute mark, Mr. Thompson was really hitting his stride with a full-blown jeremiad on abuse of power. He was the heir to a tradition of very public lawyers, men like Johnnie Cochrane and Sanford Rubenstein, who seem to materialize any time a case—particularly a racially charged case—hits the front page.
Despite his claim to the contrary, Mr. Thompson seems particularly adept at having high-profile clients find him. In recent years, he has represented Sandra Guzman, a former editor at The New York Post who sued the paper for wrongful termination, alleging discrimination; Sherr-una Booker, the woman who accused an aide of Gov. David Paterson of domestic abuse; victims of the midtown steampipe explosion; families of the victims of the 2008 Upper East Side crane collapse; and state Democrats named in last year’s Aqueduct scandal. But the D.S.K. case is Mr. Thompson’s breakout moment.
To say that Mr. Thompson was trying the case in the press would not be strictly accurate. He was not technically a litigant in the case. But what he was clearly doing was trying to get the case to trial, using the press. In his mind, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance was on the verge of dropping the charges against Mr. Strauss-Kahn, and Mr. Thompson was using one of the few tools left at his disposal to strong-arm Mr. Vance into proceeding with the prosecution. “The district attorney has an obligation to stand up for this rape victim,” Mr. Thompson insisted.
The D.A.’s office was frustrated with the move. “It became clear that his motivation was not doing what he could to help prosecutors build a criminal case,” said a source close to the matter. “If anything, he seemed determined to work against it. Publicly promoting his own agenda vastly overshadowed advocating for his client.”
The offices of Thompson Wigdor more closely resemble a digital ad agency than a law firm. The space, designed by the small Williamsburg architectural firm Studio Tractor, is all clean lines and Modernist aesthetics. Mr. Thompson’s office is devoid of the usual legal paraphernalia—shelves of law books, for instance—usually associated with a lawyer’s office.
With his large carriage and expressive face, Mr. Thompson, is a man of considerable presence. He recounted his life story. which at times had the ring of an introduction at a dinner in his honor. “You’re looking at some one who was born and raised in the city,” he told The Observer. “I’m as New York as they come.”
Born in Harlem, he was brought up in Co-op City by a single mother who worked as an N.Y.P.D. patrol officer (an assignment made possible by a class action suit filed by female officers, who had until then been relegated to desk duty in the department). He produced a copy of I Can Be Anything, a sort of self-help career book from the ’70s. A paperclip-marked page has a picture of his mother in uniform, smiling proudly for the camera.
He did reasonably well at John Jay college, and excelled at N.Y.U. law, where he met Ron Noble, then an evidence professor, but now the head of Interpol, based in Lyon, France. When he was tapped to head the federal investigation of the raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, Mr. Noble choose the young Mr. Thompson to join him in D.C. “It was clear to me that he was going to have a distinguished career in the courtroom and that he was going to be on the side of justice,” Mr. Noble told The Observer.
“He allowed me to write a section of the report,” recalled Mr. Thompson, “which was a big deal. And since the head of the Secret Service reported to him, I was able to go to the White House on occasion, and that was a big deal.” He emphasizes this last phrase in such a way that conveys that the privilege was a big deal to him, but also a big deal.
Then came the Abner Louima case. By 1997, Mr. Thompson had done three years as a federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of New York (after having turned down a job in the Manhattan D.A.’s office, ironically.) “I was at my desk late one night, and I knew the guy who had the case from the beginning. I went to law school with him,” Mr. Thompson recalled. “[He] called me up and told me he had a client who was sodomized by the police, and I’m like, ‘Yeah right, okay, I’ll talk to you later.’ He said, ‘No I’m serious, I want you to set up a meeting with your boss.’ And so, weeks later, the Louima case was all in the papers.”
Mr. Thompson, the most junior member of the prosectution team—which included Alan Vinegrad and Loretta Lynch, both of whom would go on to become the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District—was chosen to give the opening statement. “They made a decision to give it to me. I didn’t lobby for it, didn’t expect it,” he said, “but I knew it was going to be the most important assignment I’ve ever had. And when I walked to the court house that day, I was with my fiancée, who is now my wife, there were 20 news vans outside in Cadman Plaza. It was very intimidating, but I went in and gave that opening statement.”
Mr. Thompson’s address to the jury was plainspoken, graphic and meant to inspire discomfort (not unlike his courthouse-steps account of the Strauss-Kahn case).
“Justin Volpe and Charles Schwarz began to inflict their own special brand of punishment,” he recounted to the jury, “their own special brand of brutality, their own special brand of torture. Justin Volpe pushed Mr. Louima down to the floor of the bathroom and Abner Louima’s face ended up next to a filthy toilet bowl. There was Abner Louima, lying there, handcuffed behind his back, pants down to his knees.” And it only got more gut-wrenching from there.
As Mr. Thompson’s own website points out, no less than Jimmy Breslin reported that he “delivered an opening statement that will be remembered.”
“Zach Carter [the U.S. attorney at the time] had hundreds of prosecutors. Why did they choose me?” Mr. Thompson asked himself aloud. “I think they knew that when I speak,” he answered, “I speak in an earnest way to the jury. I don’t talk over jurors, I talk to them, as if we’re all stuck on the 5 train. I say, ‘The guy got out the car, and he punched the guy right in his face.’ I talk to them like that. I don’t go, ‘The guy exited the vehicle and the assailant perpetrated … ’ I don’t talk like that. I am me.”
The Louima case was a watershed moment for Mr. Thompson, a high- profile case in which he not only stood quite clearly on the side of justice, but also one in which he, and the other members of the prosecution, won. “That Louima case to me was the case that really shaped me as a trial lawyer,” he said. “I knew at that point I could try a big case. I had done the trial with these great prosecutors and I held my own. “
But it wasn’t only when he found his legs as a big time trial attorney, but also where he made his first forays into dealing with the press. By his own admission, he took to it gamely. “It was the first time I’d ever spoken to the press,” he remembered, though it’s hard to imagine there was a time before he spoke to the press. “You see that picture right there,” he gestured toward the back wall of his office. “Zach Carter spoke, and then a reporter said, does anyone else have anything to say, and I said, ‘Yeah I do.’ I said, ‘If you’re looking for a hero, look no further than Abner Louima,’ and I made some other comments. Pretty audacious, but I felt that that needed to be said.”
After the Diallo case, Mr. Thompson made the not-unusual move to private practice, joining the large corporate firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius as an employment-discrimination attorney. (“My wife said, ‘We gotta make some money.’”), but after several years, he left there, along with fellow attorneys Douglas Wigdor and Scott Gilly, to form the independent firm Thompson, Wigdor & Gilly.
Over the years, Mr. Thompson’s cases got bigger, and his skills both in the courtroom and in the press seemed to have kept pace.
“He connects with juries,” said a former Thompson Wigdor partner, Andrew Goodstadt. “He connects with members of the media. I mean, you saw him standing out in front of the court house on D.S.K. I mean for a 35-minute uninterrupted CNN interview where you use the word vagina 20 times in four minutes.”
“He is certainly gifted in the way he expresses himself in court,” said one seasoned litigator who has opposed Mr. Thompson in court, “but I think that the handling of the case … there’s certainly things that he does—and I’ve seen it with my own eyes—where it is very much in a gray area. And there are hard-and-fast ethical rules, and he pushes the envelope. And there’ve been instances where I’ve seen judges’ eyes go up, because he pushes the envelope so far that it was clear that he crossed the line.”
In fact, earlier this year, Thompson Wigdor was sanctioned by a Manhattan judge for failing to disclose facts to opposing counsel, which resulted in the departure of named partner Scott Gilly.
“I think the entire Thompson Wigdor model,” said Mr. Goodstadt, “is not as not always as chummy with opposing council as some lawyers are. But they do it all in the interest of their own clients.”
“I think it’s more so there’s tremendous financial gain. There’s tremendous ego wrapped up in it,” the seasoned litigator said. “I guess you’ve got to litigate against him once, and then you just realize he’s so full of shit.”
Still, both Mr. Thompson’s skill and aspirations may lie as much beyond the legal realm as within it. As attorney for Sherr-una Booker, a client he took on virtually pro bono, Mr. Thompson was less a legal resource than a trusted adviser and spokesperson, dealing with the press and managing the message. I didn’t feel like I could trust many people,” Ms. Booker told The Observer. “People were just hounding me, on top of me, and just all over me … I felt confident and secure, and as soon as he stepped in, Ken understood how to deal with the media. He had a rapport.”
Mr. Thompson’s standing in the black community has also been ascendant. He is a member of the Christian Cultural Center, a hugely influential, predominantly black megachurch in the Flatlands neighborhood of Brooklyn. With a congregation of more than 30,000 members, it is not a bad place for an ambitious lawyer to get to know the borough’s power base. It was there that Ms. Diallo first appeared in public, at a July 28 press conference.
“Ken has been with us for about 10 years,” said the church’s pastor and CEO, A.R. Bernard. “He and his family became part of the ministry when he really began to get high-profile cases. I remember that Louima case. We sat and talked, and I spoke to him as a mentor, and that really began a much closer relationship than pastor and casual parishioner.
“In a large congregation such as ours, many of those cases came as a result,” added Rev. Bernard. “You take the case with the steam pipe explosion, right? Regular family of our church. You take another case with Macy’s,” he said referring to a class action suit filed by Mr. Thompson’s firm against the department store chain, which also came to Mr. Thompson through the church. Democratic State Senator John Sampson is also a congregant.
“I will say that we’ve discussed it,” said Rev. Bernard, when asked about Mr. Thompson’s political prospects. “That’s as far as I’ll go.” According to Rev. Bernard, Mr. Thompson “keeps a small circle of relationships, purposely. And he has to, especially with the aspirations that he has going forward in terms of serving people.”
“I think its just kind of assumed,” Mr. Goodstadt added.
For his part, Mr. Thompson denies any immediate political ambitions. “Down the road, maybe, when I’m 60,” he said. “I got small kids, I’ve got a brownstone in Brooklyn.”
I’m a lawyer,” he added emphatically.
In the meantime, Mr. Thompson, on behalf of Ms. Diallo, has filed a civil suit in Bronx Supreme Court, seeking unspecified damages from Dominique Strauss-Kahn. “I look forward to trying this case,” said Mr. Thompson, in trial lawyer mode once again. “I really do. I look forward to standing in front of a jury describing how a hard-working woman who came here from Africa because of the promise of America, who never had any issues for three years at that hotel walked into that room after she was told no one was in there and was violently attacked … I looked forward to telling that to a jury, because one thing I have is that faith in the jury system.”