Cosby Team’s Strategy: Hush Accusers, Insult Them, Blame the Media
In 2005, when Tamara Green told the “Today” show and The Philadelphia Inquirer that Bill Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted her in the early 1970s, one of Mr. Cosby’s lawyers publicly branded the allegations “absolutely false,” while his aides approached another newspaper with “damaging information” about her, according to court documents.
Five years earlier, after an actress on Mr. Cosby’s TV series “Cosby” told the police that he had tried to put her hand down his sweatpants at his New York townhouse, Mr. Cosby’s lawyers threatened The National Enquirer with a $250 million defamation suit for publishing detailed comments about the incident by the woman’s relatives.
And when Mr. Cosby acknowledged an extramarital affair in a 1997 interview with Dan Rather, his agent telephoned the president of CBS Entertainment to demand that the segment not air on “60 Minutes” as planned. It did not, although CBS News said the decision had nothing to do with the call.
As accusations of sexual assault continue to mount against Mr. Cosby — more than two dozen women have gone public, the latest last Monday — the question arises as to why these stories never sparked a widespread outcry before. While many of the women say they never filed police complaints or went public because they feared damaging their reputations or careers, the aggressive legal and media strategy mounted by Mr. Cosby and his team may also have played a significant role.
Bill Cosby has used an aggressive legal team to fight accusations. Credit Matt Rourke/Associated Press
An examination of how the team has dealt with scandals over the past two decades and into this fall reveals an organized and expensive effort that involved quashing accusations as they emerged while raising questions about the accusers’ character and motives, both publicly and surreptitiously. And the team has never been shy about blasting the news media for engaging in a feeding frenzy even as the team made deals or slipped the news organizations information that would cast Mr. Cosby’s accusers in a negative light.
Playing hardball with people who make (and report on) incendiary claims is hardly a new tactic in the celebrity world. But given the volume and severity of the recent charges, with numerous women saying Mr. Cosby drugged and then sexually assaulted them, some legal and public relations practitioners question the wisdom of continuing to counterpunch.
“Sometimes in a case like this, less can be more,” said Benjamin Brafman, a criminal defense lawyer who represented Dominique Strauss-Kahn. “Attacking someone who is perceived to be a ‘victim’ can often be unproductive.”
“I would suggest,” Mr. Brafman added, “a softly spoken denial rather than an outspoken challenge to the integrity of the women now coming forward. Simply put, it may be better to say nothing than try and engage so many.”
The team behind Mr. Cosby’s longtime strategy has included John P. Schmitt, a lawyer from the New York law firm Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler; Norman Brokaw, Mr. Cosby’s longtime agent at the William Morris Agency until late 2012; and Norman’s son David Brokaw, who has been Mr. Cosby’s publicist for 40 years. In addition, at several critical moments over the past few decades, Mr. Cosby has called on Martin D. Singer, an $850-an-hour lawyer with a reputation for playing rough on behalf of clients like Charlie Sheen and Arnold Schwarzenegger when they found themselves embroiled in controversy.
“He is a bulldog,” David R. Ginsburg, executive director of the entertainment, media and intellectual property law program at the U.C.L.A. School of Law, said of Mr. Singer.
Mr. Singer’s intensity was on full display in the first week of December after Judy Huth filed a civil suit in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleging that in 1974, when she was 15, Mr. Cosby plied her with drinks and forced her to perform a sex act on him in a bedroom at the Playboy Mansion.
In court papers, Mr. Singer said Ms. Huth’s claim was “meritless” and nothing short of “a shakedown.” According to Mr. Singer, Ms. Huth and her lawyer had first demanded money to keep them from going public and Ms. Huth had tried unsuccessfully to sell the allegations to a tabloid 10 years earlier. (Ms. Huth’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.)
It was not the first time that the word “shakedown” had been used to describe the motives of those coming forward with accusations of sexual abuse by Mr. Cosby.
Back in 2005, after Andrea Constand, a Temple University basketball manager, told the police in Pennsylvania that Mr. Cosby had drugged and sexually abused her at his home in Pennsylvania the year before, a story appeared on “Celebrity Justice,” a TV show and website created by the founder of TMZ. “Sources connected with Bill Cosby,” the show reported, said that before Ms. Constand had approached the police, her mother had asked Mr. Cosby to “make things right with money.” The show went on to say that a Cosby representative had called this “a classic shakedown.”
Mr. Singer was the Cosby representative in question, another member of Mr. Cosby’s legal team said at a court hearing in 2005, and the next year Ms. Constand sued him for defamation. (Her lawyers denied the charge at the time.) That suit and Ms. Constand’s suit against Mr. Cosby were later consolidated and settled confidentially.
Mr. Singer declined to comment for this article.
Mr. Schmitt, who has been a lawyer for Mr. Cosby for more than 30 years, has also played a significant role — both behind the scenes and publicly — perhaps most notably in beating back the accusations of Autumn Jackson, who claimed to be Mr. Cosby’s daughter. When Ms. Jackson, in 1997, threatened to sell the story to the tabloid The Globe unless Mr. Cosby paid her $40 million, Mr. Schmitt agreed to wear a recording device as part of a law enforcement operation that charged her with extortion.
Martin D. Singer, a lawyer for Bill Cosby, at his Los Angeles office in 2011. Mr. Singer described the claims of one accuser as “a shakedown.” Credit Stephanie Diani for The New York Times
And after Ms. Jackson was found guilty, Mr. Schmitt took the unusual step of appearing on Geraldo Rivera’s CNBC show, “Rivera Live,” in 1997, and saying that Mr. Cosby would take a blood test to determine paternity.
Mr. Schmitt declined to comment for this article.
The Cosby team’s media strategy over the years has been a mix of hardball and playing ball, sometimes even with the same news organization.
Though the Cosby legal team threatened The National Enquirer in 2000 with a $250 million lawsuit, relations with that tabloid were decidedly more friendly five years later. After Ms. Constand, the Temple University employee, had gone public with her accusations against Mr. Cosby, The National Enquirer was pursuing a story about another woman, Beth Ferrier, who said Mr. Cosby had drugged and sexually assaulted her in the mid-1980s. In exchange for not publishing its article about Ms. Ferrier, The Enquirer got an exclusive interview with Mr. Cosby (the headline: “Bill Cosby Ends His Silence: My Story!”), according to recently unsealed court documents.
Team Cosby would also try to apply pressure behind the scenes. In 1997, soon after Mr. Cosby’s son, Ennis, was murdered in Los Angeles, Mr. Cosby gave his first interview to Dan Rather of CBS News. For much of the two and a half hours of questioning, Mr. Rather focused on the crime and how Mr. Cosby was dealing with the grief. But he then gingerly asked about Ms. Jackson and the extortion charges, which had just become public days before. Mr. Cosby, surprisingly, acknowledged the affair with the mother and said that he could possibly be the father.
When the network aired the newsiest tidbits from Mr. Rather’s forthcoming “60 Minutes” segment on the morning and evening news programs, Norman Brokaw, Mr. Cosby’s William Morris agent and one of the most powerful people in television at the time, called Leslie Moonves, then the president of CBS Entertainment, to complain about the treatment of the network’s star.
Days later — after Mr. Rather had recorded his audio for “60 Minutes” — CBS News decided to scrap the segment. CBS executives denied any corporate interference, saying journalistic reasons had prompted the move. In the biography “Cosby,” Mark Whitaker writes that bad blood between Don Hewitt, the powerful executive producer of “60 Minutes,” and Mr. Rather also drove the decision. Mr. Hewitt, who despised Mr. Rather, was furious that the newsiest excerpts had already been broadcast.
Mr. Moonves and Mr. Rather declined to comment.
During this recent spate of accusations, the Cosby team has suggested that the proliferation of accounts is itself a reason to distrust them and has pointed to apparent inconsistencies in some of the women’s stories. It has also systematically directed its ire at the news media, which it claims is engaged in a blind rush to judgment against a man who has never been convicted or charged. Mr. Singer threatened to sue Buzzfeed last month as it prepared an article about accusations by Janice Dickinson, a onetime supermodel, that Mr. Cosby drugged and raped her in 1982 in Lake Tahoe in California. “You proceed at your peril,” Mr. Singer wrote, saying that Ms. Dickinson had told a contradictory story in her memoir more than a decade earlier.
And in the past 10 days, he has sent angry letters to CNN and The Daily News, accusing them of abandoning any journalistic rigor in their coverage. “The media has consistently refused to look into or publish information about various women whose stories are contradicted by their own conduct or statement,” he wrote in his letter to The Daily News.
Mr. Singer isn’t the only one following the blame-the-media handbook. On Dec. 15, Mr. Cosby’s wife, Camille, finally broke her silence and joined the defense of her husband. In a statement released by David Brokaw, she said, “There appears to be no vetting of my husband’s accusers before stories are published or aired.”
She concluded: “None of us will ever want to be in the position of attacking the victim. But the question should be asked — who is the victim?”
But casting doubt on or aiming vitriol at the accusers can have consequences.
In 2005, when Mr. Cosby’s team denied Tamara Green’s accusations that he had drugged and sexually assaulted her in Los Angeles in the early 1970s, she did not pursue legal action. But this month she was ready to fight back. Mr. Cosby’s team had greeted her renewed claim of sexual assault by saying it was “a 10-year discredited accusation that proved to be nothing at the time, and is still nothing.” On Dec. 10, Ms. Green filed a defamation suit against Mr. Cosby, saying the denials basically branded her a liar.
“I want it put to a jury,” Ms. Green said earlier this month. “I want it ended, finally. I want my name restored.”