Last week, as the Reverend Al Sharpton vowed to go “a-shopping for justice,” at a press conference following the police shooting in Queens of unarmed bridegroom Sean Bell, Sanford Rubenstein was just out of the cameras’ view. Rubenstein, together with Michael Hardy, Sharpton’s general counsel at his National Action Network, claims to have been retained by all the victims in the incident: Bell’s fiancée, Nicole Paultre; his parents, Valerie and William; and his friends Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman. He’s already begun plotting what’s expected to be a highly profitable case against the city. “My speciality is the trial before the trial,” Rubenstein says. “The court of public opinion.” Sharpton’s sometimes personal attorney, he’s got a track record, including an $8.75 million settlement for Abner Louima and $3 million for the family of Ousmane Zongo, an unarmed African immigrant shot dead by a cop in a Chelsea warehouse. (An attorney’s cut of contingency cases is typically 33 percent.) Rubenstein’s relationship with Sharpton has its skeptics. Randy Credico, director of the William Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, compares Sharpton and Rubenstein to “aluminum-siding salesmen. Sharpton is the canvasser, Rubenstein is the closer.” He adds, “These guys are in the civil-rights business, not the civil-rights movement.” Sharpton dismisses such charges. When a victim or family contacts him to take on their cause, “they choose their own lawyers. Now, if they ask me, I may make a recommendation, but they are free to choose who they want. There’s no quid pro quo.” Asked if he’s ever felt inclined to compensate Sharpton for his referrals over the years, Rubenstein says, “Absolutely not. It’s totally irrelevant. The answer is no.”
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