By: Martin Berg
You might call Keith Rohman the anti-Pellicano.
Some people familiar with his work already do. Far from the glamour and seaminess of Hollywood, Rohman and the Los Angeles-based company he founded, Public Interest Investigations Inc., has been digging into a mindbendingly wide array of cases for 25 years, ranging from the death penalty and the nitty-gritty of workplace discrimination to the abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib.
Obviously he’s not as well-known as Anthony Pellicano, the poster child for all that’s bad about hardball, do-anything-to-win tactics in high-stakes litigation. That’s not a bad thing. For more than 25 years, Rohman has built a solid reputation for meticulous, fair-minded investigations, working as an investigator for criminal defense lawyers, plaintiffs and corporate defense lawyers as well as for government agencies and court-appointed monitors.
Now the National Lawyers Guild has decided to honor Rohman for his work at their annual dinner June 14 at the Pasadena Hilton, along with the founding dean of the UC Irvine School of Law, Erwin Chemerinsky.
Not that Rohman has been a stranger to the limelight.
You may remember seeing him on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” or “Anderson Cooper 360,” sharing his experience investigating juror misconduct. Or you may have read The New Yorker’s account of the bizarre and controversial case in which he was called in to investigate the claims of an Amnesty International Guatemala specialist found bound and gagged in her car in Washington state. She alleged two men threatened that if she ever returned to Guatemala, she’d be killed. To make a long and very twisted tale short, Rohman found that she had fabricated her story. The ensuing controversy caused tension on Amnesty’s board, causing some of its members to resign.
I first met Rohman when I sought him out as a juror expert when I was covering the O.J. Simpson murder trial in 1994. He was already handling some high-profile cases around the criminal courts, including the Billionaire Boys Club.
I was impressed by his low-key, down-to-earth approach, as well his ability to maintain a sense of humor in the midst of his extremely serious, often life-and-death work.
Most investigators come from a law enforcement background. Not Rohman. A 51-year-old New York native, he dropped out of Vassar College to work as an organizer for community groups, and then unions. He used to get blank stares when he mentioned the organization he worked for, but he doesn’t any more – ACORN.
After four years he was ready for a change. Inspired by a movie with Richard Dreyfuss, “The Big Fix,” featuring the exploits of a “lefty private eye” named Moses Wine, Rohman took a few classes and wheedled his way into some work chasing husbands and wives. Jobs followed working undercover in a hospital and investigating auto accidents.
His organizing work was actually great training for being an investigator. “Organizing involves talking to complete strangers, getting in the door, listening to their stories, getting them to cooperate with you and working in all kinds of environments,” Rohmnan told me.
The investigator’s job boils down, he said, to “talking so people will listen, and listening so people will talk.”
He started his own company in 1984. His work moved on to the national stage in the late 1990s when his firm was hired to assist the court-appointed monitor overseeing a consent decree governing discrimination claims against Denny’s restaurants. When the consent decree ended, Denny’s hired Rohman’s firm to track its performance.
He went back to college and got his degree from Mt. St. Mary’s College, attending classes on the weekends, and has been teaching at Loyola Law School as an adjunct professor. This summer, the Cardozo Law Review will publish his article focusing on Abu Ghraib as a case study in analyzing and diagnosing flawed investigations.
Rohman also works on an internal Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department panel that evaluates harassment claims to determine whether they’re credible, recommending discipline when appropriate. He’s also served on the Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission, and was elected commission president last year.
When you talk with lawyers who have worked with Rohman, they praise his thoroughness, his curiosity and his lack of bias.
Susan Burke, lead attorney in civil suits against private contractors stemming from allegations of torture of at Abu Ghraib, said: “Like any trial lawyer, I’m a bit of a control freak, and there are few people who understand that, in litigation, no detail can be too small. Keith is one of them.”
In addition, Rohman is able to question the alleged victims of torture with sensitivity – which is key, she said. “He’s able to be thorough and interview them, but he’s able to be gentle, so they don’t feel like they’re being interrogated.”
He’s also able to interview the Abu Ghraib interrogators effectively. “He checks any preconceptions at the door,” Burke said.
It’s not just the National Lawyer’s Guild that’s recognized Rohman’s work. He’s gotten to know Roger L. Simon, who wrote the novel on which “The Big Fix” was based. Simon has immortalized Rohman in a subsequent novel, “The Straight Man,” naming a character Peter Roman.