NEW YORK — He's been a loud, inescapable and expensive adversary of the New York Police Department for years: the publicity-loving lawyer who got huge settlements, and headlines, in some of the city's most notorious brutality cases.
Now Sanford Rubenstein is getting unwelcome attention as a potential rape suspect.
In a strange turn even for a city where the outlandish is ordinary, Rubenstein is under scrutiny by the police force he's so often lambasted. The investigation has become a dilemma for a figure who helped propel him into the limelight — the Rev. Al Sharpton — and has prompted Rubenstein to step away from the prominent case of a man who died after being placed in a police chokehold.
"With the factor of the different antagonists in this story," says Pace University law professor Bennett Gershman, "the whole thing is really bizarre."
A member of Sharpton's National Action Network has accused the 70-year-old attorney of sexually assaulting her at his luxury apartment after Sharpton's 60th birthday party Oct. 1, two law enforcement officials have said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the matter publicly. Police searched Rubenstein's place, dragging out a mattress and bags of evidence.
Rubenstein hasn't been charged with any crime. His lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, has said Rubenstein denies doing anything criminal and is confident no charges will ensue.
But, for once, Rubenstein himself has been mum.
Flashy, brash and always camera-ready with slicked-back hair and anything-but-conservative suits, Rubenstein is a classic New York lawyer — or a caricature of one. His self-published memoir features a cover photo of him before a bunch of TV microphones and the title "The Outrageous Rubenstein," a phrase borrowed from one of the very tabloids now gleefully dissecting his sex life.
"Being called 'the outrageous Rubenstein' is, to me, a compliment of the highest order," wrote Rubenstein, who sees himself as a champion for everyday people wronged by powerful institutions.
He was among lawyers who secured an $8.75 million settlement for Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant whom a police officer admitted sodomizing with a broomstick. He represented relatives of Sean Bell and Ousmane Zongo, unarmed men who were shot and killed by police; their families received multimillion-dollar settlements.
Rubenstein has had many other high-profile and high-paying cases, including that of a woman whose death on the floor of a hospital where she'd waited more than 24 hours for treatment. He's even represented himself after slipping and falling last year at his Brooklyn office building.
His flair for self-promotion and dogged courtship of the media — his book recounts inviting a reporter to interview a mother at her comatose son's bedside — stand out in a profession that often prizes decorum.
Some colleagues don't see him as a stellar courtroom tactician, "but we all understand that he decided a long time ago to represent his clients in the court of public opinion," says Jerry Reisman, a lawyer who's observed Rubenstein in court and out.
If Rubenstein's uber-public persona has riled adversaries, his clients have benefited financially "because he's not afraid of getting into people's faces," says Fordham University law professor James A. Cohen.
But it's hardly an asset as Rubenstein himself is under a police microscope.
"It has a bit of a Shakespearean quality to it," said Ed Mullins, who heads the city police sergeants' union. To him, Rubenstein has profited off attacking police and "is now asking for due process when he never gave it to anyone else."
The investigation has roiled legal and civil-rights circles, especially because of Rubenstein's close ties to Sharpton.
They met during the Louima case and later joined forces as advocates for others with police brutality claims, including the family of Eric Garner, the who died after a police chokehold this summer.
Rubenstein was Sharpton's lawyer during Sharpton's three months in jail after protesting Navy bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, and Sharpton has praised Rubenstein as "always willing to stand up."
Now, Sharpton says if he's forced to choose sides, he must stand with the woman, not Rubenstein.
"I have never seen anything in his character to suggest that he would assault a woman," Sharpton told The Associated Press. "But I don't see anything to suggest she's a liar. I'm between a rock and a hard place here."
Rubenstein withdrew this week from representing Garner's relatives to avoid distracting from their push to hold police accountable, law partner Scott Rynecki said. Garner family members, who have signaled plans for a $75 million lawsuit, announced Saturday that they would hire civil rights attorney Jonathan Moore to replace Rubenstein.
Some other clients, including the parents of a 4-year-old girl killed by an unlicensed driver fleeing police, are standing by Rubenstein.
"He stood by us," father Allen Russo told the Daily News, "during the toughest time of our life."