Business

Motives of Weinstein Law Firm Are Questioned

Posted June 1, 2018 8:33 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — When it emerged in November that film mogul Harvey Weinstein had hired one of Manhattan’s top criminal defense lawyers amid rape allegations, Daniela Unruh was shocked.

Weeks earlier, Unruh, a German model who was a producer of Weinstein’s television show “Project Runway,” had flown to New York to meet with a lawyer she believed worked at the same firm. She told the lawyer, Alex Spiro, that Weinstein had sexually assaulted her over several years.

“He made it sound like the case was so hot,” Unruh said.

Two other women, including Melissa Thompson, who knew Weinstein socially, said they had similar meetings with Spiro in October. The three women said they were introduced to the lawyer by an acquaintance, a New York businessman who urged them to consider filing a sexual assault claim against the producer.

As the case against Weinstein has unfolded, the women have questioned whether the lawyer was trying to extract information about their experiences with the producer for the firm’s case, rather than seeking to represent them.

On Friday, Thompson, joined by two other women, filed a lawsuit against Weinstein in which she accused him of sexually assaulting her in a Manhattan hotel room in 2011. She said in a court filing and in interviews that she felt Spiro had misled her, a sentiment echoed by the other two women, who spoke to The New York Times.

The women provided emails to The Times that support their accounts. Thompson also shared an audio recording of her conversation with the businessman. The third woman requested anonymity because she had no plans to file a lawsuit and wanted to put the matter behind her.

The women said the lawyer, Spiro, appeared to work for Benjamin Brafman, the criminal defense lawyer hired by Weinstein. His email was from the firm, Brafman & Associates, as was the office address on his email signature. Thompson said Spiro told her explicitly that he worked for Brafman.

Spiro had communicated with the women when he was in the process of leaving the Brafman firm to join another law firm, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan. He had technically severed his ties in late September before meeting the women, although he briefly continued to work out of Brafman’s office and to use the firm’s email.

Thompson’s lawsuit accused Spiro and Brafman of using “deceptive tactics to cause her to believe that Brafman and Spiro were working for the victims in order to entice her to turn over her visual and audio evidence of Weinstein’s actions (which she did).”

“She had shared important evidence against Weinstein with the very law firm who represented Weinstein — unbeknownst to her,” according to the complaint.

Beth Fegan, the lawyer representing Thompson in the suit against Weinstein, said she wanted to know whether Spiro planned to feed information about potential claims to Brafman and Weinstein. “We’re investigating whether Harvey’s criminal defense team misrepresented their loyalties to victims,” Fegan said.

Weinstein was charged last week by Manhattan prosecutors with rape and committing a criminal sexual act in incidents involving two other women. He was indicted by a grand jury on the same charges on Wednesday. He is expected to plead not guilty.

Brafman denied that he or his firm had done anything improper with regard to Thompson and the two other women. He said he had no knowledge of Spiro’s meetings with the women. He also said . Spiro did no work for Weinstein and had stopped working at his firm at the end of September.

“I’m not certain he even knew that I was representing Weinstein,” said Brafman, adding that he had represented the producer for several months before it became public in November. “I don’t know what Alex told people when he was not in my presence.”

Brafman said if he had known what Spiro was doing, he would not have allowed it.

In a response provided by a Quinn Emanuel spokesman, Spiro said he had never told Brafman about his conversations and did not know that he had been representing Weinstein at the time. He denied telling Thompson that he worked for Brafman’s firm.

“I never have, and I never would, represent Harvey Weinstein,” said Spiro, who was recently hired by rapper Jay-Z for a battle with securities regulators. “In fact, I represent one of the key victims.” He later identified the client as Italian model Ambra Battilana.

The meetings and conversations could fall into an ethical gray area, said Rebecca Roiphe, a professor at New York Law School who specializes in legal ethics. She said it could be “problematic” for Spiro to meet with women whose interests were “clearly adversarial” to Weinstein.

“Unless he was being very frank with all the parties involved he may face some ethical issues,” Roiphe said. She added that Spiro should not have contacted the women until he had cut all ties to Brafman’s firm.

“From an ethical standpoint, whatever Spiro knew counts as Brafman’s knowledge,” she said.

But she said a judge would be unlikely to disqualify Brafman from continuing to represent Weinstein, unless there was evidence that he knew about the conversations with the women and had approved of them. Thompson said she was referred to Spiro in mid-October by Paolo Zampolli, a former modeling executive she had known socially but had not spoken to in years. Zampolli, she said, knew about the 2011 incident with Weinstein, and had urged her to contact Spiro about potentially filing a lawsuit.

Zampolli, widely credited with introducing President Donald Trump and Melania Trump, the first lady, at a party in 1998, told Thompson he had a falling-out with Weinstein and wanted to “bury” him, according to the audio recording of the conversation reviewed by The Times.

“You gonna be represented by the biggest lawyer that existed in United States history,” Zampolli can be heard telling Thompson, using an expletive, in the audio recording. “There are all these girls, and they’re getting together and they’re being represented by Benjamin Brafman.”

Zampolli denied making the comments to Thompson and called the recording “fake news.”

Unruh, the model, and the third woman said they had gotten a similar pitch from Zampolli. They said he had introduced them to Spiro via emails, copies of which The Times reviewed. Zampolli said he had no recollection of the introductions.

Thompson said that when she spoke to Spiro, he asked her about the episode with Weinstein. They communicated several times over the next few days by phone, text and email, according to her complaint and to the communications reviewed by The Times. She gave him a video of a meeting with Weinstein in 2011 a few hours before the episode in the hotel room, in which they appear to flirt while discussing a potential business venture.

The video was reviewed by The Times. The allegations of assault outlined in the complaint were not independently verified.

Spiro “purported” to ask questions to analyze Thompson’s potential claims, the complaint says. In one instance, the complaint says, Thompson asked whether he was still interested in representing her, to which he responded “Correct stick with me.”

“I thought it was safe to talk to an attorney,” Thompson said. “That is no longer safe.”

In the case of Thompson, Spiro ultimately referred her to a lawyer at another firm, Judd Grossman. Grossman took her on as a client on Oct. 23, according to an engagement letter reviewed by The Times. The letter also mentions that Spiro will represent her as co-counsel.

Spiro said that Grossman had put his name on the engagement letter without his knowledge. Grossman, who no longer represents Thompson, said in an email that he did not learn Brafman was representing Weinstein until it was reported on Nov. 8.

Grossman and Thompson discussed, among other things, the possibility of selling her video of the meeting with Weinstein to a media outlet.

Unruh, the model, said she also shared information with Spiro about her encounters with the producer. During a meeting in mid-October, she said, she told him that Weinstein had assaulted her more than once. It began, she said, with an episode at the Four Seasons in 1999 during which he forcibly performed oral sex on her. A friend, Blake Meeks, confirmed her account.

Before they met in person, Unruh, in emails reviewed by The Times, told Spiro that her case involved not just allegations of sexual misconduct, but also outstanding payments related to “Project Runway.” Spiro replied with an assurance that her case would be “handled with the utmost care,” and later told her to meet him in the backroom of Bedford & Co., a restaurant near the Brafman firm’s offices in Manhattan.

But Unruh said she was running late for the appointment, and accidentally went to the firm instead. Spiro quickly ushered her out, insisting that they meet at a nearby coffee shop and that she should not speak too loudly or mention Weinstein’s name.

“It was quite surprising,” said Unruh, who added that Spiro declined to take on her case. “I remember how fast and how quick he wanted to get out of his office.”