What Do the Rape Accusations Against Civil-Rights Lawyer Sanford Rubenstein Mean for Eric Garner’s Family?

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The rape investigation of high-powered attorney Sanford Rubenstein, while horrific enough on its own, has also resulted in collateral damage for his most prominent clients of the moment. Rubenstein, who represented the families of Abner Louima and Sean Bell, winning millions of dollars in settlements from the NYPD, was an obvious choice to represent the relatives of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man killed by a police chokehold this summer. But when the Garner family filed its $75 million notice of claim against the city yesterday as a prelude to a lawsuit, the fact that Rubenstein’s sullied name appeared on the paperwork gave opponents an easy opening to undermine the case. The New York Post was happy to help.

Are you kidding me? A self-proclaimed civil-rights attorney accused of raping a black woman. You can’t make this up,” said a gleeful Ed Mullins, the president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association police union, in the tabloid today. The Post put the claim on its cover, along with a photo not of Garner but of Rubenstein, alongside the headline, “‘Rape’ lawyer’s outrageous suit.” (“Everyone [at NYPD headquarters] could not be happier about this,” a police source told the Daily News over the weekend.)

The 70-year-old Rubenstein has not been charged but is accused of possibly drugging and raping a 42-year-old woman who works at Al Sharpton’s National Action Network after the reverend’s birthday party last week.

What’s newsworthy is that the Garner family is seeking justice for the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, in a statement to Intelligencer. “What is not newsworthy about the Garner case is the unrelated behavior of the family’s attorney.”

Sharpton, who has already distanced himself from the man the Post has repeatedly called his “pal” anyway, has also spoken out in defense of the Garner family, explaining that Rubenstein’s continued involvement is technical in nature and may be ending soon. “The filing of the Notice of Claim, by the Garner family was planned to protect their right to a lawsuit before the time to file expired,” said Sharpton in a statement. “It in no way reflects their decision or the decision of National Action Network or other supporters determination of the legal counsel that will represent the family going forward, in light of the issues around Sanford Rubenstein.”

A decision from the family about their legal representation moving forward will come Saturday, Sharpton said. “Any statements regarding counsel will be made by the [Garner] family,” added Rubenstein’s partner, Scott Rynecki. “The family wants to see justice done.”

If they don’t want to be pilloried in the press in the process — and tied at every turn to the word rape, an effective distraction from the issue at hand — Rubenstein should be dropped as soon as possible. “We must protect the family’s rights,” said Sharpton, who sounds a lot like someone who knows what has to happen.