David Povich

David Povich, prominent defense lawyer, dies at 87
Against seemingly impossible odds, he won an acquittal for an assistant U.S. attorney seen on videotape taking bribe money from undercover agents

David Povich, a partner at the premier Washington law firm of Williams & Connolly who once won an acquittal for an assistant U.S. attorney seen on videotape taking bribe money from undercover agents — an entrapment case in which he warned prosecutors against prematurely assuming they had caught their “big fish,” died Aug. 19 at his home in the District. He was 87.

The cause was mantle cell lymphoma, said his sister, Lynn Povich, an author and former Newsweek journalist.

Mr. Povich, whose father was Washington Post sports columnist Shirley Povich, joined Williams & Connolly in 1962 and became a specialist in white-collar criminal defense, federal criminal investigations, government contracts, corporate disputes and personal-injury lawsuits. He occasionally handled divorces of prominent Washingtonians, including the stormy alimony battle between Sen. John G. Tower (R-Tex.) and his second wife, Lilla, who was Mr. Povich’s client.

His most notable case began with a massive 1975 sting operation, a joint endeavor of local police and federal agents, to clamp down on millions of dollars in stolen goods, including government-office machinery, credit cards and other hot items.

Undercover agents posed as Italian American gangsters running a warehouse in Northeast Washington, where they began a fake business in office-equipment supply that would serve as a fence for purloined merchandise and videotape the transactions. Customers rolled in, including addicts and thieves as well as prostitutes. One prostitute mentioned an assistant U.S. attorney who had been her client and, perhaps inclined to take bribes, had thrown a case involving her friend in return for sex.

While the matter was not related to the initial undercover mission, it piqued the interest of law enforcement officials. They asked the prostitute to act as a middleman between the federal prosecutor, Donald E. Robinson Jr., and agents posing as organized-crime figures who wanted to make a “business deal” for inside information about grand juries.

Robinson accepted and later said that he did not tell his bosses, fearing embarrassment about his private life. And he claimed his wife received threatening phone calls at home, which persuaded him to return to the purported “Mafiosos” and try to make a deal. Robinson was subsequently seen on videotape accepting $700 in bribes. The recordings also seemed to depict him weighing whether the money was sufficient.

“This case involves a crime that was never contemplated until the police decided they would go out and try to corrupt an assistant U.S. attorney,” Mr. Povich said during Robinson’s trial. The government, he said, “induced” his client to commit the crime.

A federal jury in 1976 acquitted Robinson of bribery and obstruction of justice. Mr. Povich used his client’s relationship with the prostitute as part of the defense, arguing that Robinson, a 32-year-old married father of three, “wasn’t hiding corruption” by accepting the apparent the bribe, but instead “hiding his association” with a sex worker. Mr. Povich said Robinson feared gangsters who claimed to have knowledge of his carousing and seemed intent on harming his family, perhaps violently, if he did not carry out their wishes.

“Beware of police when they think they’ve got the big fish,” Mr. Povich said at the time. “When the temptation becomes too great, the methods become drastic.”

Robinson, who subsequently moved to New York, was disbarred in that state in 1979 for what a New York State Supreme Court called violations of his “oaths and obligations as an attorney and public officer” stemming from the legal battle.

The high-profile case, won against seemingly impossible odds, burnished Mr. Povich’s reputation. When representing defendants nabbed in sting operations, he counseled, lawyers should use the word “enticement” rather than “entrapment” and present their clients as momentarily greedy opportunists rather than hardened criminals. “They could go through the rest of their life without committing an unlawful act,” he told The Post.

Even when Mr. Povich was unable to win an acquittal, he often succeeded in reducing a client’s prison sentence.

He represented Rep. Charles C. Diggs Jr., a Michigan Democrat and Congressional Black Caucus founder convicted in 1978 of running a payroll kickback scheme in his office. Mr. Povich argued that Diggs should not go to prison because he had suffered the tarnishing of his reputation and the diminishment of his finances. “There is no necessity to further punish him,” he argued. Diggs served seven months of a three-year prison term.

Nathan David Povich was born in Washington on June 8, 1935. He graduated in 1954 from the private Landon School in Bethesda, Md., then from Yale University in 1958 and from Columbia University’s law school in 1962. He retired from Williams & Connolly in 2014.

In 1959, he married Constance Tobriner, whose father, Walter, became the last president of the D.C. Board of Commissioners. In addition to his wife, of Washington, and sister, of Manhattan, survivors include four children, Douglas Povich of Chantilly, Va., Johanna McDonough of Washington, Judith Noglows of Little Silver, N.J., and Andrew Povich of Montclair, N.J.; a brother, TV talk-show host Maury Povich of Manhattan; and 10 grandchildren.

He was a member of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington and served on Landon’s board. In their father’s honor, he and his siblings helped create the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism at the University of Maryland’s journalism school and Shirley Povich Field, a baseball stadium in Rockville, Md.

Mr. Povich restored a 1950 Jaguar roadster and was a judge at Jaguar antique-car shows. With one of his law partners, he also owned sailboats, including one named Confrontation.