Sunday, April 1, 2007 | 7:34 a.m.
WASHINGTON - The federal investigation into gifts that Gov. Jim Gibbons received from a defense contractor is not a story followed closely by legal affairs reporter Nina Totenberg. But the moment the National Public Radio correspondent heard that Gibbons had hired defense attorney Abbe Lowell, she knew what to expect.
Lowell is a consummate Washington defense attorney, an insider with connections throughout government. He knows when political behavior crosses over into illegal behavior - and works diligently to try to blur the line on behalf of clients.
"I would assume he'll try to persuade the prosecutors there isn't a case," Totenberg said last week. She surmised that Lowell will try to show that the gifts Gibbons took from Warren Trepp, owner of a Reno software firm, were not offered to the former congressman in exchange for his work securing defense contracts for Trepp's company, eTreppid Technologies LLC.
Rather, Totenberg said, Lowell will "try to indicate they're longtime friends, there's no violation of law."
She knows because the playbook that Lowell and the handful of other top white - collar defense attorneys in Washington follow is a familiar one: public official under scrutiny for possible misdeeds. Defense attorney talks and talks, often sandpapering down the prosecution's case, sometimes making it disappear.
Lowell didn't keep his most famous recent client - lobbyist Jack Abramoff - out of prison, but he helped reduce the sentence significantly. Abramoff cut a deal with prosecutors that led to a continuing investigation of Washington lobbying.
Lowell's other clients have been found on the scandal pages at the supermarket checkout lines . They include former Congressman Gary Condit, who was romantically linked to missing intern Chandra Levy. Her body eventually was found in a Washington park. Washington police have cleared Condit.
Another recent client was Richard Scrushy, the HealthSouth executive charged with multiple counts of fraud. He walked out of court a free man.
Lowell also helped President Bill Clinton maneuver through the impeachment proceedings as Democratic counsel for the House Judiciary Committee.
Gibbons has denied any wrongdoing in the Trepp matter. The FBI investigation is in its early stages. But Lowell's involvement indicates that the governor is taking the matter seriously. Legal fees for lawyers like Lowell climb quickly into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"You don't hire somebody at the level of experience of Abbe Lowell unless you're facing a serious matter," said Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor who is a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
"Kickbacks, bribery - those are years in jail," she said. "What you need is somebody who has the smarts, expertise and the resources to stay on top of this."
Others who have watched Lowell imagine that he is working the phones and e-mails with the U.S. attorneys trying to figure out what they have on his client and to convince them whatever case they are building, if any, is weak.
In defending Abramoff, Lowell cooperated with investigators long before it became publicly known, essentially steering prosecutors to matters that extended far beyond his client.
Douglas Kmiec, a former White House counsel in the Reagan and first Bush administrations, said in a perfect world, investigators won't engage with defense attorneys. But he expects Lowell "will do what he can to pry information out of those conversations and in the exchange of information come out the winner."
Lowell declined to comment for this story. But experts said it's a matter of time before he begins speaking out. "You can bet Lowell will be a frequent public speaker - verbally on sidewalk or in print," Kmiec said.
Three weeks before the Scrushy trial, Lowell departed from the case. But his handiwork had set the stage for the outcome. Scrushy initially faced 85 counts of fraud, which Lowell had persuaded prosecutors to knock down to 58. That alone shaved 200 years off a possible sentence, Donald Watkins, lead attorney on the case, said.
Scrushy was acquitted.
Stan Hunterton, a Las Vegas attorney who suggested that the Gibbons team hire Lowell, knows what people think now that the veteran defense attorney is involved.
"It's what we used to call the F. Lee Bailey problem: If you show up with F. Lee Bailey, what does everybody assume? You're guilty," Hunterton, a former federal prosecutor, said. But he added the alternative to living with those assumptions is a weaker defense.
Lowell is famously intense. But he let his hair down a few weeks ago in a decidedly Washington way when he acted as the defense attorney for Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy's mock trial of Hamlet.
The event brought a sold-out crowd to the Kennedy Center, where Lowell argued that Hamlet's soliloquies and conversations with ghosts were the ramblings of a madman - one too crazy to be tried for the murder of Polonius.
To the audience's surprise, the jury of Washingtonian nonpoliticos split 6-6.
Lowell helped Hamlet beat the rap.