Thomas D. Yannucci
Kirkland & Ellis
If you're a television news-magazine producer already congratulating yourself on the Emmy you expect to win for your upcoming investigative opus, a letter from Thomas Yannucci is just the thing to burst your balloon. Yannucci has made a name for himself as Washington's foremost exposé-killer, a lawyer fearsomely skilled in representing clients who are the subject of media probes. Over the past decade, he's gone up against a who's who of journalistic outlets, from NBC and The Washington Post to The New Yorker magazine. Some lawyers write threatening letters or file defamation suits. Yannucci has debunked stories, discredited news organizations by exposing unethical doings, and, in one instance, triggered a counter-investigation that resulted in a reporter and his source both pleading guilty to criminal charges. So be afraid. Be very afraid. (As, Yannucci told the Columbia Journalism Review last year, "I do take it as a compliment.")
Yannucci's first big media case was representing General Motors in a 1993 suit against NBC, whose "Dateline" program had aired a segment charging that GM trucks were prone to blow up in side-collision crashes, thanks to gas tanks vulnerable to puncturing. As the lead counsel, Yannucci helped GM uncover proof that the trucks shown in the segment had been rigged with explosives, and then he extracted an on-air apology from NBC and $2 million in compensation for the counter-investigation. Michael Gartner, the president of NBC News, and a half-dozen NBC employees subsequently lost their jobs.
In 1997, Yannucci's team was hired by Cincinnati-based Chiquita Brands International, which was the target of a sprawling international investigation by The Cincinnati Enquirer. After the newspaper published a package of stories alleging that Chiquita had engaged in bribery and other wrongdoing, the Kirkland & Ellis attorneys turned the tables on the newspaper and its parent, Gannett Company, Inc., by exposing that Enquirer reporter Mike Gallagher had illegally hacked into Chiquita's company voice-mail system and listened to messages, which he used as material for his articles. Gallagher eventually pleaded guilty to two felony counts and the newspaper agreed to pay a settlement reportedly in excess of $10 million.
Yannucci says that he gets at least one call a week from companies that want to hire him to get the news media off their backs. His team at Kirkland & Ellis inserts itself between its clients and the news media, handling requests for documents and negotiating ground rules for interviews, and firing off pre-publications warning letters. (Last year, for example, when General Barry McCaffrey, the Clinton Administration's anti-drug czar, was being probed by Seymour Hersh, the legendary investigative reporter, Yannucci wrote The New Yorker , reportedly warning that "potential for damage to [McCaffrey's] reputation and future opportunities through the publication of defamatory falsehoods is therefore accordingly immense.")
"I think that you get further working with a journalist than by blustering or pounding the table," Yannucci says. "The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal aren't going to be intimidated by someone calling and barking at them. They are interested in someone who is demonstrating that they're about to make a factual mistake."
Once an unfavorable story does break, Yannucci has other tricks up his sleeve besides demanding a correction or filing a defamation suit; he's been known to write to journalism awards committees and ask that a story about a client be dropped from consideration. "Post-publication, I can be pretty aggressive," he says. "The gloves are off."