Profile of Attorney Robert I. Reardon, Jr. in The New London Day

Polished And Pugnacious, Lawyer Hits Big Time

Matthew Malone Day Staff Writer, Enterprise Reporter

Publication: The Day

Published 06/08/2003

Once A Defender Of The Little Guy, New London Lawyer Now Linked With Trump

New London -- It's 5:20 p.m. on a Thursday, and a woman's voice comes over the intercom at the Reardon Law Firm.

"Excuse me, attorney Reardon?" the voice says. "Donald Trump on line one."

Bob Reardon rises from an armchair and excuses himself from a visitor. On the phone, Trump gives him an order: "You owe me $200."

The day before, Reardon addressed reporters in a small hotel banquet room in New London and outlined a multimillion-dollar lawsuit filed by Trump against the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation and several of its investors. Trump is suing the North Stonington tribe over a casino development contract he says the Pequots failed to honor, having chosen to deal with Southport-based developer David Rosow instead.

Reardon, dressed in a Navy blue suit, crisp white shirt and blue-and-pink rep tie, stood at a podium affixed with a gold plaque and the biblical inscription: "The entrance of thy words giveth light."

The attorney has a number of high-profile clients - victims of Catholic clergy sexual abuse and of the Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island, among others - but he appeared nervous crowded by microphones, cameras and reporters. As photographers clicked away and television cameramen zoomed in, Reardon raised his thumb to wipe sweat from his forehead. He clutched his glasses in his left hand.

He spoke briefly about Trump's disputed deal to build a southeastern Connecticut casino. He took a swipe at Rosow, claiming he was a better sailor than a casino builder. Reardon ended the conference abruptly, darting from the room to answer the cell phone vibrating in his suit pocket.

It was Trump, just checking in.

The next day, the front pages of Connecticut newspapers were splashed with news of the Trump lawsuit. Wire services beamed the story to papers nationwide. When Trump arrived at his Manhattan office that morning, a stack of roughly 100 newspaper clips awaited him. Trump, Reardon said, pays a company $2 for every article it collects that mentions his name.

Trump's demand for $200 was a joke, his way of thanking Reardon for the publicity generated by the 15-minute press conference.

A job well done, the billionaire said.

•••••

The Reardon Law Firm is housed in a meticulously restored, early 20th-century Tudor home on Hempstead Street in New London. Amid the balustrades, gables and bay windows topped by gold finials, "solid copper gargoyles peek out from the cornices of the house, protecting it from evil spirits," according to the firm's brochure.

For Robert I. Reardon, Jr., 57, such evil spirits lurk in the halls of big businesses. The attorney, who grew up in Waterford and now lives in East Lyme, has made a lucrative career - and a formidable reputation - representing Connecticut clients against businesses that range from Domino's Pizza to Allstate.

He markets himself as a modern-day David, slinging stones at the Goliath of big corporations. "I have stood up for the weak and infirmed, the poor and the humble," Reardon proclaims in the firm brochure. Indeed, he successfully has represented everyone from boiler technicians to the mentally ill. The brochure was made before the case with Trump, whose net worth Forbes magazine estimates at $1.9 billion.

By all accounts - from family, colleagues, former employees and Reardon himself - the attorney is consumed by work. He is at the office six days a week and does little socializing. In casual conversation, he talks about car accidents and botched colonoscopies the way some people talk of baseball scores and the weather.

Each Wednesday morning, the firm's paralegals and lawyers gather in the office's grand conference room, where the walls are polished African mahogany. The purpose: a painstaking review of some of the firm's roughly 300 active cases, sessions known to the staff as "tickler" meetings.

Reardon does not appear to be a man who enjoys being tickled. When he's not speaking, his thin lips retreat beneath his angular nose, settling into a subtle frown. His hair is cropped short over his ears and combed with such vigor as to withstand a gale. His eyes are vibrant periwinkle blue.

His conservative suits are decorated with a white pocket square, the cuffs of his dress shirts secured with shiny cufflinks. He wears a slim gold wristwatch on his right arm. His wire-rimmed glasses complete the sober look.

His seriousness appears to have paid off. Two binders of newspaper clippings in the firm's waiting room document Reardon's success. They are filled with the details of decades of settlements, awards that range from several hundred thousand to several million dollars.

The firm's profits for 1998 were put at approximately $2 million, according to a lawsuit by a former employee who is disputing the amount of a bonus payment.

Reardon drives a racing green Jaguar sedan with "RIR 1" on the license plate and stenciled on the doors. He owns a J-24 sailboat, which he sails infrequently, and is awaiting delivery of a new Chris Craft powerboat. He docks the boats at his house on the water in East Lyme. He occasionally travels with his wife, Lise Reardon, a Juilliard-trained ballet instructor, to their vacation home in Cape Haze, Fla.

Reardon, say colleagues and family, is characterized by an unwavering commitment to his clients and his tough - at times ferocious - tactics inside and outside the courtroom. They describe him variously as intimidating and intemperate and as gentlemanly, generous and fiercely loyal. He can embitter defense lawyers with heavy-handedness, but impress clients with his involvement in their cases and his skill in the courtroom.

"When you're on trial with Bob Reardon, he's on trial with your ancestors, your family and your unborn," said John Nazzaro, 44, of Stonington, who worked as Reardon's partner from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s. "No one will outwork him."

A cassette tape of one of Reardon's closing arguments, performed by the attorney himself, is available from "Million Dollar Arguments," a catalog of winning closings produced by a private Massachusetts company. Reardon won $3.27 million in the case, after arguing for damages for the family of James Loftis, a 22-year-old newlywed father "at the threshold of life." Loftis, a police dispatcher, was killed in a car accident in 1993.

Most of Reardon's cases are settled before trial. Of the more than 50 cases he has tried to verdict over his 30 years' of practice, only three were decided against him, he said.

In the early 1970s, Reardon served as a captain in the U.S. Marine Judge Advocate General's Corps, an experience, he said, that gave him the self-confidence and will to be a cutthroat adversary.

Not everyone appreciates his approach. Joseph Sweeny opposed Reardon in a recently settled case of alleged sexual abuse against a priest formerly with the Norwich Catholic Diocese. In a recent interview, Sweeney described his courtroom adversary as "a rare breed."

Reardon, an Irish Catholic educated at Jesuit-run Boston College and Fordham Law School, expresses no qualms about taking on the church.

"I'm doing what's best for the Catholic Church, in my opinion," said Reardon, who is handling seven other clergy sexual abuse cases. "More importantly, I'm doing what's right for my clients."

In an article in this week's The New Yorker magazine, the writer describes Reardon's efforts to open up the records of a private psychiatric institution in Hartford, The Institute of Living, which treated several priests for their sexual misdeeds. Reardon's vigor as he attacked the church repulsed Sweeney, who found his tactics "less than credible."

Sweeney recalled a phone conversation he had with Reardon during the trial. Sweeney remarked that he had gotten along fine with Mark DuBois, an attorney in Reardon's firm who handled the early stages of the case before his boss took over.

"Mark DuBois is a nice guy," Sweeney said in recalling Reardon's comments. "I'm not a nice guy. I'm a p--."

Reardon disputes the particular obscenity. "I would have said 'son of a bitch,'" he said.

•••••

Reardon's first test in the ways of the law began with an incident one summer day in the early 1960s, in the front seat of a British racing green Triumph convertible. As Reardon remembers it, he was a student at St. Bernard High School and was hanging out with friends at a sea wall in New London when he came up with a bright idea.

A fad at the time among young people was to cram as many people as possible into a variety of places - phone booths, cars, etc. - and Reardon wanted in. With a friend in the passenger seat and five or six people piled in the jump seat, Reardon drove the Triumph forward 10 feet to make the stunt "official." A few minutes later, official it was: a New London police officer smacked Reardon with a ticket for "overcrowding a vehicle."

Well before that incident, Reardon had decided he wanted to be a lawyer. Waiting for a city bus one afternoon on State Street, he walked into Parade News and bought the book "The Great Mouthpiece." It told fantastic, but true, tales about William J. Fallon Jr., a flamboyant 1920s trial lawyer with a winning record, shaky ethics and a penchant for colorful rhetoric. The story, Reardon said, confirmed his feeling that being a lawyer would be an exciting way to make a living.

Reardon's younger brother, Kevin Reardon, who runs the Waterford insurance business started by their father decades ago, said that growing up in the Reardon household prepared his brother well for a life spent arguing.

"(Our mother) can't tolerate it when we're in the room together," he said. "We're a fairly adversarial family, but we deeply love each other."

As Bob Reardon's court date approached on the overcrowding-a-car charge, the teenager looked into legal statutes in search of a defense. Overcrowding a vehicle, he found, was defined as having more than three people in the front seat. Since police reported that only two people were sitting up front, Reardon informed the lawyer hired by his father, who in turn argued the point before the judge.

The ticket was dismissed.

•••••

On Nov. 17, 1988, state police divers pulled an upturned, 1985 tan Plymouth Reliant from the bottom of the Mill River in New Haven. Inside the car, the bodies of four young East Lyme residents were huddled in the back seat. They had been missing for five days.

After the grim discovery, the families of two of the victims, 19-year-old Christy Stevens and Michael Gallo, 20, called on Reardon.

The case, Reardon said, was his first high-profile lawsuit. His face and comments appeared frequently in the newspaper and on the evening news. In addition to the intense media interest, the complex circumstances of the incident made the case a difficult one.

The young adults apparently had become lost on a Friday night and had driven off the end of Chapel Street where a bridge normally would have been. A 4,000-pound concrete barrier that blocked the passage during construction and repairs there had been removed. An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the city of New Haven had been negligent.

The city, however, claimed that alcohol contributed to the crash. All four victims had alcohol in their systems; two were above the legal driving limit. But given the placement of the bodies in the car, it was difficult to determine who had been driving.

After years of forensic tests, depositions and legal wrangling, one of Reardon's experts determined the identity of the driver from skin and hair samples taken from the broken windshield. The driver's blood alcohol level was within legal limits.

Steve MacKinnon, a former Reardon attorney now practicing in East Hartford, assisted Reardon with the case.

"There were tremendous hurdles to be gotten over to get a settlement," MacKinnon said. "(Bob) came up with some different legal avenues at the end of the case. I don't think, without Bob taking the initiative, that the case would have settled for the amount that it did."

On July 2, 1993, the city of New Haven agreed to pay all four families a total of $3 million.

•••••

It took Nancy Noyes, a 42-year-old burn victim of the Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, R.I., two hours to become a believer.

Noyes had heard the name Bob Reardon from friends and relatives during nearly three months she spent recovering in hospitals. When she came home last month, Reardon was the first lawyer she called.

On Thursday, Reardon and three other attorneys filed a 526-page federal lawsuit on behalf of Noyes and seven other victims of the nightclub fire.

During his days in the JAG Corps, Reardon said, he learned how to handle the first meeting with a client.

In your office, he said, "Never expect the client to come to you. You go to them in the waiting room."

So one recent evening, Reardon and Noyes sat at the kitchen table in her studio apartment in New London. Reardon had spent the day in Hartford on a case but, still dressed in a dark suit, he "looked as fresh as he must have looked in the morning," Noyes said.

He outlined his successes and detailed his expertise for her. He casually dropped a few names of high-profile clients and experts - Trump and forensic scientist Dr. Henry Lee, among others - but she didn't find him pushy. He was, in fact, "fatherly."

"He was warm enough to sound sincere," Noyes said. "And the fact that he wasn't an ambulance chaser was a big plus.

"He wasn't trying to be my buddy or my best friend, he wasn't trying to make me like him. He just stated the facts."

She hired Reardon on the spot.