The Interview: Joe Cotchett Still Has Big Fish to Fry

By Janet Reilly

Joe Cotchett by Spencer Brown

When I think of Joe Cotchett, three words come to mind: bigger than life. At 6 feet 4 inches, with a booming voice and the gift of gab, the Burlingame power attorney commands attention wherever he goes, particularly in the courtroom. Raised in Brooklyn, Cotchett studied engineering at Cal Poly, where, in the late ’50s, he founded the school’s first integrated fraternity, causing others to quickly follow suit. After graduation, Cotchett served as an officer in the U.S. Army Intelligence Corps and was a Special Forces paratrooper, making a dozen airborne operations. But it was studying law at UC Hastings where he found his pride and passion (a word he uses often): representing the underdog.

Since then, Cotchett, a partner at Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, has taken on countless cases and won multimillion-dollar — even billion-dollar — verdicts against some of the biggest names in corporate America and on Wall Street. However, it’s not the money that motivates him — it’s the pursuit of justice.

On a recent afternoon, we sat down in the Merchants Exchange Building in downtown San Francisco, where we talked big cases, big money — making it and giving it away — as well as the 2020 race for the White House.

During your 50-year career, you have taken on Wall Street, big banks and corporate giants, just to name a few. What has been the highlight of your career? It’s a case I lost. I sued the FBI for killing a woman, and when I say “killing a woman,” they put an informant into the Ku Klux Klan [who had a history of violence against African Americans]. The woman killed was Viola Liuzzo. You probably know of her. … Viola [a white housewife, mother and activist from Michigan] went down to the Selma marches [in 1965] and was giving two African American men a ride to the [Montgomery] airport. A truck with four individuals [including the FBI informant] pulled up next to her at a stoplight and a man put a gun out the window and killed her, yelling that she was a sympathizer.

I tried the lawsuit against the FBI [in 1983]. To this day I’ll never forget when I had the chief FBI gentleman on the stand — courtroom was packed — and I said to him, “The FBI screwed up, didn’t they, putting this man on as an informant?” He said, “Yes, we did.” “You wouldn’t do it again, would you?” He said, “Not based on what we know now.” I thought the case was over, but the court ruled against us, saying that based on the law of suing the government you have to prove not just negligence, but [something] close to intent. I said, “Your Honor, they [the FBI] certainly didn’t intend to kill a woman, but the foolishness of putting a man on as an informant, who they knew used to take a baseball bat down to the Greyhound bus stations, walk up to African Americans and break their legs when they were just sitting there to prove to the Ku Klux Klan that he was tough.” And to that, the judge said, “I’m done.”

So, if you ask me what’s the most important case I’ve ever tried, that would be it.I’d try it over and over again because within a few short months, the FBI changed the way they hired informants.

What other cases stand out in your career that you’re proud of? Most of them would be environmental cases. There’s a local case, the Martin’s Beach case, that I’m proud of — and I was able to stop a huge housing development down in the Santa Cruz area. Westinghouse wanted to build 50-60,000 homes there. Today you can get in your car and drive along the ocean all the way down to Ventura and you’ll have the most beautiful coastline in the world. Go south of there to Malibu and then [farther] south from there and it’s house, house, house, house. So, those are the cases I’m really proud of and enjoy. Now, have I made millions of dollars suing Wall Street? Yes, I have, Your Honor.

Well, let’s talk about that. In one of your most famous cases in the early ’90s, you took on Lincoln Savings & Loan, representing 26,000 senior citizens who lost millions of dollars in Charles Keating ’s Continental American Bank scam. You won the then-largest jury verdict in history: $3.3 billion, reduced to $1.8 billion. What was that like? When the jury came in at $3.3 [billion], the judge said, “Mr. Cotchett, you did a wonderful job in this case, but I’m reducing the verdict to $1.8 billion.” I just laughed. I said, “Judge, you’re the judge.” And, he said something to the effect of, “You were terrific, but you just bulldozed that lawyer. As a matter of fact, Mr. Cotchett, you could sell ice to an Eskimo.”

You have represented the NFL throughout your career. Tell me about that! They were so interesting. I represented them for about 25 years because they needed a trial lawyer. They had fabulous lawyers but they didn’t have anybody who could stand in court and do what I do. You have no idea of the definition of pomposity until you’ve met some NFL lawyers.

Is that true? The arrogance! And now it’s coming back to haunt a number of these older lawyers. I got in representing one of the first women owners, Georgia Frontiere. She was my client when the Oakland Raiders were moving to L.A. That’s how I got involved with the National Football League.

But just to give you one quick example of what went on in the National Football League that is now coming home to roost: In the old days, when a player got hurt on the field, they would come to the sidelines and go into the locker room and team doctors would hand them a little batch of pills and say, “Here, take these. Your pain will go away.” And they did. And that was a regular thing that was going on and everybody knew what was going on. Today, there are hundreds, hundreds of former NFL players who are hooked on opioids. They were giving them opioids and never telling them what it was. They just wanted them back on the field, right?

And I remember one dispute I had where I stood up in front of all the owners and called them out on a process called “sideline bonuses.” Here’s what it was: If a quarterback was having a good day, the word would go out about sideline bonuses. … It was this: If you went in to a game and could knock the quarterback out with a vicious hit, an illegal hit, you got a thou-sand-dollar bonus. Can you imagine that? They finally caught some coaches, years after I challenged them.

You are one of those people who seems to be doing exactly what you were born to do, so I was interested to learn you have an engineering degree from Cal Poly. When did you decide to become a lawyer? Probably in my last year of engineering school. … It was clear to me I didn’t want to sit behind a desk and draft … I worked for Bechtel as an engineer while I went to the University of California Hastings.

You’re known as one of the best trial lawyers in the country. Why are you so good, and what does it take to be a good trial lawyer? It takes thinking outside the box. More importantly, it takes passion. You’ve got to have that passion to do right. I’m certainly up there as a record-holder of having verdicts that I got reversed — and I’m very proud [of this] — for inflaming the jury. I’ve had judges write opinions, and I’ve had judges say after the jury came in, “Mr. Cotchett, that was wonderful. But you inflamed that jury.” “Thank you, Your Honor.”

Meaning that you riled [the jury] up so much they gave larger awards than may have been merited like in the Lincoln Savings and Loan case? Yeah. I’m being candid with you in that you ask what it takes to be a trial lawyer. There’s lots of lawyers right up and down this street who call themselves lawyers. But if you put them in a courtroom and they can’t handle or express themselves with passion, they ought to try dentistry or dermatology or something else. Because to be a trial lawyer and represent someone with passion, that’s what it’s all about.

I’ve turned down a lot of cases; for example, years ago the tobacco industry came to me and asked me if I would defend tobacco companies. And they offered me money that in those days was a lot of money per month — just to use my name on their defenses in all the courts in California. I turned them down. I bit my tongue and said, “No, I don’t want your money.” And I sent them to a lawyer in Los Angeles — a wonderful guy, I won’t use his name. He wrote me a little note that I still have to this day, which is, “Dear Joe. Thank you for sending me the American Tobacco Institute. … I want you to know, you have a lot of integrity; I have none. Thank you very much.”

You grew up in the streets of Brooklyn, and have been fighting for the underdog for a long time. Where did that passion come from? My mother. She left an orphanage in Ohio with her sister when she was 15. They took a Greyhound bus to New York City. My mother never went to college, she never had the opportunity. But she had a mind that was beyond anything you’ve ever seen. She played bridge with a world-class player. … And she got married, had children. I was the third child. We moved out on Long Island, right past Brooklyn. And she had a couple of apartment houses that she bought very cheap. And she’d rent out the rooms and what have you, and she still played her bridge. She was a card shark.

But she had a passion. I remember this to this day: She would go down to the Long Island train station and hire African American workers when no one else would and bring them to work on her property, feed them, house them, clothe them, and that’s the way she was. She was so passionate like that. This was in the ’50s.

You’re deeply involved in the Democratic Party — let’s talk about 2020. Why am I a Democrat? Because I believe in the greatness of our people. I believe in fairness. I believe in justice. And the Republican Party doesn’t do that. Now, I’m going to add a caveat: We have to be ever mindful of how parties can be taken away by various individuals and put under different aspects of control that we have to be fearful of and watch all the time, right?

I forget the great quote by Martin Luther King Jr.’s wife, Coretta Scott King — that independence is never won totally; it’s an ongoing battle. Or words to that effect. I try to get my children — I have five of them — off the damn iPhone, get them involved and thinking about what the real world is all about. I don’t have a favorite presidential candidate, but I certainly hope it’s a good Democrat who can understand how the world has changed and how a man like Trump got elected. And that was by preaching to values that were based upon self-aggrandizement and self-power and your pocketbook. And you know, some-times we have to share our pocketbook. We can’t be only thinking about ourselves.

You’ve talked about how many of the cases you’re involved with are quite lucrative. You make a lot of money, but you also give a lot of money away. What are some of your favorite causes? Children’s causes. Helping kids get a good education. I give a lot of scholarships. I also do a lot with environmental groups.

If you could right one wrong, what would it be? There’s so many goddamn wrongs out there, I don’t know which one to pick. … We don’t treat women with the true respect in which they should be treated. Now, the fact that I have four daughters plays into that, right?

If you could take on any case, what would it be? That’s a very good question. And the answer is I would like to take on the atmosphere of Wall Street, which is all about making a buck on the back of the consumer.

Any plans to retire? People say, “Joe, are you ever going to retire?” “Yes, when they dig a hole and they put me in it, and I feel the dirt coming in on me … .”

The Lightning Round

I’m happiest when … I’m with my kids.

The biggest risk I’ve ever taken … Jumping out of planes on secret operations when I was in Special Forces.

My biggest regret … Not running for attorney general.

If I had a magic wand, I would … Make this country a better place to live.

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