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Benedict Morelli Feels Your Pain


Buoyed by the publicity generated by the Curry case, Morelli has wasted no time launching his new socially conscious career: Last week, he filed an eight-figure sexual-harassment, assault, and battery suit against former NAACP chief Ben Chavis Jr., who now goes by the name Benjamin Muhammad, for an incident that allegedly took place while he was in his current post as East Coast regional minister of the Nation of Islam. By next month, he says, he'll announce eight-figure-plus employee racial-discrimination lawsuits against NBC, Philip Morris, and International Paper. Most of Morelli's new clients read about him in Newsweek and USA Today after he filed the Curry lawsuit. As he pursues life as a boldfaced name, some old colleagues think he's overreaching a little with Curry. "I can't imagine why Ben would get involved in that," says one lawyer who lost a medical suit to Morelli. "Ben just started his own firm. It's always taxing to do that. And a case like this puts a tremendous drain on the gut. It takes a lot of resources. A lot of us wondered about that."

Morelli is asking Morgan Stanley to shell out $1.78 billion in penance for giving Christian Curry the boot. "It's the only punishment Morgan Stanley understands," he says, with the same passion he unloaded in the Bronx trial. "Do I want to make money? That's what Morgan Stanley does for a living, make money."

He's playing for the jury now -- any jury. "In civil trials, the only thing we can sue for is money damages," he says. "Why are we so afraid to tell juries that money is what we want?" He pounds his desk. "I'm not ashamed of that. That's all we can do. That's what I do."

"I don't know what you did this morning," Benedict Morelli says on a gray winter day at his office, "but I ran 6.1 miles."

"The reservoir?" asks Christian Curry, absentmindedly sipping a McDonald's strawberry shake.

"No," says Morelli with pride. "I run longer than that now. I'm working out now seven days a week. I run four to five times a week, and I weight-train Tuesdays and Fridays."

They make an unlikely pair, the five-foot-six-inch lawyer and his six-foot-two-and-a-half-inch client. The lawyer is solid and tan but small; his thick white hairline gathers in a dark widow's peak just above his jet-black perma-squint eyebrows -- James Brolin by way of Peter Falk -- and he never stops moving, asserting himself in every corner of the room. He likes to call his client "Mr. Christian" and takes pleasure in trying to get a rise out of him. The client, now 26, is baby-faced and guarded -- a will-o'-the-wisp threatening to float away. After tangling with the press and coming off as a spoiled brat for it, he is clearly happy to have someone else take up his cause. In November, after more than a year of searching, Curry finally found a job as a researcher with Gardner Rich & Company, a Chicago-based brokerage with a branch office in Trump Tower. It's a quiet, part-time gig that keeps him out of the public eye. His life as a pinup, it's safe to say, is on permanent hold.

In the media-drenched aftermath of his firing, Curry talked with every major discrimination lawyer in the nation -- even flying out to California to meet with Johnnie Cochran, who offered to take him on. But last spring, Curry says, he read in "Page Six" about this attorney who never lost a case. Let the record show that Christian Curry picked his lawyer out of the pages of the Post. "He seemed to me to be the most aggressive one," Curry explains. "I needed, like, a warrior. Somebody who will get dirty. Someone to deal with things like setups and cover-ups." And someone who can communicate the concept of personal injury to a jury? "Granted, I wasn't physically injured," Curry says, "but the damage has been done."

Curry had to meet with associates from Morelli's firm twice before securing an audience with the boss. "I wasn't sure," Morelli says. "The story was pretty unique. And indeed, I needed to judge if he was a credible person." Morelli had a private detective on his payroll check Curry's background, a first for one of his own clients. Then he told Curry he wouldn't file a suit for him until the criminal charges against him were dropped -- which they were, a few weeks later.

Since then, however, Morelli's professional empathy has kicked in. Curry, he swears now, was an almost-daily victim of on-the-job racism -- and of homophobia, which, he says, triggered the firing, though Curry insists he absolutely, positively isn't gay.

"What Christian said to me when we first met, literally when my tush hit the chair, was, 'Can you get me my reputation back?' " Morelli says. "I told him I'd do what I could do. The public doesn't like big corporations and very rich people trying to crush small people. That's not America. That's not the right thing to do. Christian and I both agreed that maybe people would listen to me more because I'm not black. Maybe they'd think I didn't have an ax to grind."

Of course, even if Curry is completely innocent, he knows he has some explaining to do -- those provocative pictures, the expense violations, the trips to strip clubs on the company dime, the fact that he gave an undercover cop $200 allegedly to plant phony e-mails at his old company. After months on the case, Morelli is ready to return serve on all of these questions.

The Playguy portfolio? Young, naïve Christian Curry posed for those pictures years ago, when he was pursuing a modeling career; the photographer agreed to waive his fee if he would drop trou. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

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