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The Convert

How a devoutly Jewish, pillar-of-rectitude partner at Paul, Weiss turned into a passionately Catholic, extravagantly compensated legal caddy to the disgraced Tyco chief Dennis Kozlowski—and wound up accused of being a greedy corporate looter.

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Mark Belnick, shortly after his acquittal on charges of felony financial misconduct.   

The jury was still out, and Mark Belnick, star litigator and pillar of legal rectitude who, in a mysterious transformation, was supposed to have turned thief, could do little but wait. Belnick, former general counsel of Tyco International, had been getting updates from his lawyer about a last-second plea deal on charges he’d looted the place. Prospects, though, seemed remote.

Then, on the fourth day, after the jury asked to hear, again, the definition of “presumed innocent,” which some took as a bad sign for the prosecution, a deal started to gel. Neither side wanted to come away empty-handed. And the district attorney’s office, unhappy with its last Tyco case, which ended in a mistrial, clearly wanted a victory to trumpet. “The deal got softer and softer,” says Belnick’s attorney, Reid Weingarten of Steptoe & Johnson in Washington, D.C. The D.A. was prepared to drop all felony charges against Belnick, who’d been accused of stealing part of a $17 million bonus and hiding another $14 million in no-interest loans. Instead of 25 years in state prison, Belnick would risk none, and plead guilty to one misdemeanor. Plus—this was the sweetener—the D.A.’s office would use its influence to settle suits brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission and by Tyco.

“I don’t see how I can not take this,” Belnick thought. On the fifth day of jury deliberation, Weingarten met in the D.A.’s conference room. Tyco’s lawyers had flown in. Weingarten and assistant D.A. John Moscow seemed about to iron out a few last details when a call came in. Applause was heard coming from the jury room. The jury, it turned out, had reached a verdict. The plea deal was still on the table: Belnick could take it, and never hear the verdict. Moscow was for that. “Do we have a deal?” Moscow anxiously asked. It was Belnick’s decision.

In the elevator, Weingarten’s cell phone rang. It was Belnick, screaming. “Whatever you’re doing, stop,” he said. Belnick seemed emotional, almost angry. “We’re taking the verdict, we’re taking the fucking verdict.” Weingarten was surprised Belnick was putting 25 years in prison back on the table.

Belnick seemed willing to gamble everything to have his innocence affirmed. “I don’t want this settled in a way that someone could walk around saying, ‘You see? He did this crime, he did that crime, but he just didn’t go to jail,’ ” he’d explain later. “I’d fought and fought. I took the stand, which most defendants don’t. I’d earned that verdict. It was mine.”

“They took me by the shoulders and marched me down the corridor past where everybody worked,” Belnick said. Then he started to sob.

Outside the courtroom in the State Supreme Court, where the D.A. had posted Belnick’s annual earnings on giant charts— almost $19 million one year—Belnick faced his attorney.

“Am I crazy?” he asked Weingarten.

Weingarten answered in a low voice: “No.”

The jury filed in, dressed, as always, as if off to summer camp. Even before the foreman rose, a lawyer in the audience, one of Belnick’s former partners, began to cry.

In the TV room of his Central Park West apartment, Belnick shifts uncomfortably in an armchair. He places his arms on his belly, kicks off his loafers, and is almost relaxed when that name comes up: Moscow. The D.A. who’d tried to convince the jury that he, Mark Belnick, was a looter. Belnick’s fleshy hands swing to his sides. He strangles the space in front of him.

Belnick does seem an unlikely candidate for looter. Just ask any of his old Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Garrison & Wharton admirers—he’d worked there for 26 years. They knew Belnick as a gifted litigator who, as one former colleague put it, “wouldn’t even go near the line.” In the eighties, he’d taken a star turn, investigating corruption for the U.S. Senate during the Iran/contra controversy, a career highlight that was televised (“Cherry on the cake,” says Belnick). By the mid-nineties, the country’s most powerful CEOs had him on their short lists when they got in trouble.

At Paul, Weiss, Belnick struck people as kind of nerdy, a straight shooter, maybe a bit of a know-it-all. He quickly impressed with his agile mind, but at the same time he was dutiful, eager to please. He was the not-quite-secure overachiever who put in thousands of hours a year—3,000 in some years—then took the late train home to the suburbs. And like so many others, occasionally, he griped about the money.

In his best years at Paul, Weiss, Belnick earned close to a million dollars a year, though usually much less. On that, he couldn’t comfortably afford the city lifestyle of many of his peers. So he’d raised his two girls (sent them to his beloved alma mater, Cornell) and one boy (proudly off to Syracuse) in upper-middle- class Harrison. He bought a home worth, in 1999, $1.1 million. Of course, it was very comfortable—everyone at Paul, Weiss seemed to judge their lives “very comfortable.” Life in Harrison was just fine. Belnick’s wife, Randy, a social worker, worked for a time at Rye Country Day School, where the kids went. Belnick, son of Orthodox Jews, served four terms as president of the conservative Harrison Jewish Community Center, where he’s still remembered as “a fantastic president.”

Then, in 1998, came a series of life changes that baffled his friends and that, to the D.A., formed a suspicious pattern. Belnick quit Paul, Weiss to become general counsel of Tyco. At collegial Paul, Weiss, some scoffed at the move. “Belnick traded the brass ring for the gold ring” was the swipe around the office. Soon, he bought a Central Park West apartment that cost almost $5 million, between purchase and renovations. Belnick got the money in an interest-free “relocation loan”—in court, Moscow enunciated the term as if it were in quotation marks—even though his Tyco office was just six blocks from Paul, Weiss.

The apartment was supposed to be a looter’s hideout, though as looter, Belnick offered certain disappointments. The apartment is grand, with spectacular views across the reservoir, but not posh; some of the furniture doesn’t quite match. One visitor wondered when the interior decorator would be hired.

His next purchase was more lavish. With a second interest-free relocation loan from Tyco, he purchased a $10 million home in Park City, Utah, paying a premium because the 11,000-square-foot house was on a ski slope.

The D.A. would eventually charge Belnick not only with hiding the two relocation loans but with grand larceny. The D.A.’s theory was unusual: that part of a $17 million bonus given by his boss, the CEO and chairman of the board, constituted theft because the boss failed to get it approved by the board of directors.

Then, superlawyer David Boies, on behalf of Tyco, sued Belnick, accusing him of having a secret arrangement with CEO Dennis Kozlowski. The SEC piled on, accusing Belnick of “egregious, self-serving, clandestine misconduct.”

Then, as if these developments weren’t confounding enough to those who’d known him, came the revelation—through leaked e-mails—that Belnick, the former synagogue president, had discreetly converted to Catholicism, a conservative strain practiced by Opus Dei, lately making an appearance as the evil force in The Da Vinci Code.

Even adoring former law partners couldn’t help but wonder if Belnick was suffering a very high-end breakdown. Opus Dei! They’d been to his kids’ bar mitzvahs. A Utah ski house! Belnick doesn’t ski. Just look at him—a shape like Alfred Hitchcock. If Belnick had really become a ski-loving Catholic—and none of his former partners had been informed—then who knew what other kind of kookiness was possible? “I thought maybe he was having a midlife crisis,” says one Paul, Weiss partner. What’s next: Drugs? A girlfriend? Larceny? “At one point,” says one admirer, “I was expecting he’d end up a suicide.”


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