When Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. had a news conference this summer to proclaim his innocence of the charges made against him in a civil lawsuit filed by the attorney general, Examiner reporter Freeman Klopott asked Thomas whether it wouldn’t be better to settle rather than have the city spend a bunch of money pursuing the case.

For his troubles, Klopott was called an “ass” by Thomas’ attorney, Fred Cooke Jr. Both Cooke and Thomas said they’d rejected Attorney General Irv Nathan‘s previous settlement offers because Thomas had done nothing wrong. But when Thomas settled several weeks later, he said, “I feel this is in the best interest of the city.”

So why the change of heart? “Things change,” says Cooke, adding that 1) he called Klopott an ass for insinuating that Thomas should just roll over and settle simply because he was sued, and 2) earlier settlement offers weren’t necessarily the same as what the final settlement shook out to be.

Here’s another theory, which, for the record, Cooke says is totally not true: high-profile criminal defense attorney Abbe Lowell joined Thomas’ legal team and immediately went to work settling the civil case in order to prevent any damage to a potential criminal defense.

Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that soon after the AG filed its lawsuit against Thomas, Lowell joined Thomas’ legal team and appears to have taken the lead on negotiations over the civil suit.

A log of correspondence between Thomas’ legal team and the attorney general’s office show that Lowell was the point person in settlement talks, beginning with a series of emails in late June. Cooke, who has extensive experience negotiating with various District AGs over the years, was only copied on a few of the emails. Cooke says the negotiations were done “jointly” between him and Lowell.

From a criminal defense perspective, Thomas had little to gain from fighting a civil suit, which is why it looks like Lowell went about settling the civil suit as soon as he was brought on board.  The longer the suit dragged on, the bigger the chances of more dirt being uncovered or Thomas walking himself into a perjury case while under the watchful eye of federal prosecutors. By ending the civil suit without having to answer any of the charges, the councilmember’s expensive legal team is free to focus on the much more significant matter of a criminal probe.

But Cooke says LL’s got it all wrong. He says he and Lowell have known each other for 30 years and Lowell was brought on board simply because “he’s a good lawyer with a good mind.” (Lowell didn’t respond to LL’s attempts to get a hold of him.)

“He was not brought on to manage a criminal case or possible criminal case,” says Cooke.

So there you go: As far as Cooke is concerned, one of the nation’s most prominent white-collar defense attorneys was hired by a District councilmember to help settle a case with an attorney general’s office that had already indicated it was eager to settle. That Irv Nathan must be one tough negotiator. 

Photo by Darrow Montgomery