WASHINGTON, D.C., April 13—Charles Bakaly, the former spokesman for independent counsel Kenneth Starr who was charged with criminal contempt over press leaks from Starr’s office, obviously hasn’t had his fill of controversy. Six months after being acquitted of all charges by a federal judge, Bakaly is joining crisis management specialist Sitrick & Company as head of its Washington office.
Bakaly says Sitrick offers “a good match. He pretty much owns the crisis management niche in Los Angeles and he wanted to find someone who could duplicate that expertise in Washington.” Bakaly will focus primarily on the litigation communications arena—as well as other areas where public relations and law firms work together such as mergers and acquisitions and bankruptcies—while the firm hires other staff to provide a more full service offering in Washington.
“My role has always been as an advocate, whether it’s in a court of law or in the court of public opinion,” Bakaly says. “Traditionally lawyers have been very uncomfortable dealing with the public component of a big case, and with more media attention being paid to cases, there’s often a disconnect between lawyers and public relations people. In those cases, I hope to be able to bridge the gap.”
At Sitrick, he should have plenty of opportunity to put his skills to the test. In recent years, the firm has worked for clients as diverse as Orange County, during its bankruptcy filing; Food Lion, in its suit against ABC’s PrimeTime Live; accused spy Wen Ho Lee; the real life Erin Brockovich, whose credibility was under attack by California utilities; and actress Halle Berry, after she was accused of leaving the scene of a traffic accident.
“In today’s world, it’s clear that the court of law and the court of public opinion must be dealt with simultaneously,” he says. “When I worked for Kenneth Starr my job was to try to explain the law to the media. I tried to be as objective as I could in explaining the independent counsel statute, the law as it pertained to perjury, how executive privilege worked. My approach was to explain the facts and let people come to their own conclusions.”
Says Sitrick & Company founder and president Mike Sitrick, “Charles’ experience and expertise should be of significant benefit to our clients—in litigation, crisis and government-related matters.”
Bakaly first made his name in Washington as an advance man in the Reagan White House. He was in charge of orchestrating Reagan’s 1984 walk through the American cemetery in France where more than 9,000 Americans killed in Normandy were buried. He became director of press advance, and then worked briefly as an aide to then-treasury secretary James Baker before returning to his law practice in California. He was working as a consultant to gaming operations before firing off his resume when he heard the independent counsel’s office was looking for senior staff.
Shortly after his appointment as a counselor to Starr—he told reporters he disliked being called a public relations person—Bakaly explained his role: “The White House is waging a campaign to spread misinformation, to discredit and delay the investigation of the President. My job is to correct the factual errors; to protect the integrity of the investigation.”
At the time, only 13 percent of respondents to a CBS poll had a favorable opinion of Starr, while 52 percent saw his investigation as part of a ideologically-motivated crusade to damage the president. Bakaly worked to improve the relationship between the independent counsel and the media—ending the impromptu press conferences that had led to so much controversy—to challenge White House delaying tactics, and to present Starr as a lawyer and legal scholar rather than as a partisan zealot.
But he soon found himself at the center of controversy over the way the investigation of the president was being conducted. Clinton’s lawyer, David Kendall, criticized what he calls “the new Bakaly prosecutorial public relations offensive.”
Bakaly resigned from the independent counsel’s office after an internal review of a press leaks prompted Starr to request a full Justice Department investigation. The review was triggered by a report in The New York Times, which said Starr had concluded President Clinton could legally be indicted while still in office. The report came at a sensitive time, because a federal judge was already investigating the independent counsel’s office over allegations that grand jury materials in the Monica Lewinsky case had been leaked to the press.
In July of last year, Bakaly was charged with criminal contempt, even though a federal appeals court ruled in September of 1999 that the information leaked to The New York Times was not protected grand jury material—meaning that the leak itself was legal. That led several observers, including The Wall Street Journal, to describe the case against Bakaly as “a prosecution too far, again,” and the Times to call it “ill-considered.”
In October 2000, Bakaly was found not guilty. Judge Norma Holloway Johnson said that although Bakaly misled colleagues about his role in the leaks, he had been more forthcoming with Federal Bureau of Investigation agents investigating the leak. Prosecutors had maintained that Bakaly lied in court papers initially filed with Judge Johnson, but he later admitted to FBI agents and investigators with the Office of the Independent Counsel that he spoke with the reporter of the article on several occasions before the story was published.