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Weinstein overhauling legal team as trial looms in 60 days

FILE - In this April 26, 2019, file photo, former movie mogul Harvey Weinstein leaves State Supreme Court in New York for a lunch break. Weinstein is recasting his defense team yet again, this time a mere 60 days before he's due to stand trial in New York on sexual assault charges. One lawyer has bolted amid public backlash and another has said they just couldn't get along. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

NEW YORK — With one lawyer bolting amid public backlash and another saying he and his client just couldn’t get along, Harvey Weinstein is recasting his defence team yet again, this time a mere 60 days before he’s due to stand trial in New York on sexual assault charges.

Lawyer Jose Baez is in court Thursday to get a judge’s permission to leave the case in the latest defection from what was once seen as a modern version of O.J. Simpson’s “dream team” of attorneys.

Baez, known for representing high-profile clients such as Casey Anthony, told Judge James Burke in a letter last month that Weinstein has tarnished their relationship by communicating only through other lawyers and by failing to abide by a fee agreement.

“Mr. Weinstein has engaged in behaviour that makes this representation unreasonably difficult to carry out effectively and has insisted upon taking actions with which I have fundamental disagreements,” Baez wrote.

As Baez leaves, Weinstein is adding two new lawyers who’ve promised Burke that they won’t seek to postpone the trial from its scheduled Sept. 9 start.

The swap comes after another Weinstein lawyer, Harvard law professor Ronald Sullivan, left in May amid backlash about his involvement.

Sullivan’s involvement in the case drew protests from some students and faculty on the Cambridge, Massachusetts, campus.

Buildings were defaced with graffiti that included the slogans “Down w Sullivan!” ”Your Silence is Violence” and “Whose Side Are You On?” And the university removed him from his position as head of a student house citing “concerns about the climate” within the house.

Weinstein, 67, is charged with raping a woman in 2013 and performing a forcible sex act on a different woman in 2006. He denies the allegations.

Baez and Sullivan started representing Weinstein in January, when the former movie producer overhauled his legal team for the first time. That happened after his original lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, lost a hard-fought bid to get the case thrown out.

Pamela Robillard Mackey, who represented Kobe Bryant in his 2003 Colorado sexual assault case, and ex-Manhattan prosecutor Duncan Levin were also hired in January and have since left.

Weinstein’s new lawyers, Donna Rotunno and Damon Cheronis, both of Chicago, did not return phone calls on Wednesday.

They join Arthur Aidala, a New York City lawyer whose clients have included rapper 50 Cent, former Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz and the late Fox News chief, Roger Ailes.

Baez and Sullivan didn’t respond to email inquiries Wednesday.

Sullivan wrote about the backlash to his representation of Weinstein in a June 24 op-ed in The New York Times, noting that during the 10 years he served as a faculty dean he has represented both sexual assault defendants and accusers in criminal court and student victims in campus Title IX proceedings.

Sullivan said he was “willing to believe that some students felt unsafe” about his involvement in the Weinstein case, but that “feelings alone should not drive university policy.”

“Unchecked emotion has replaced thoughtful reasoning on campus,” he wrote. “Feelings are no longer subjected to evidence, analysis or empirical defence. Angry demands, rather than rigorous arguments, now appear to guide university policy.”

Baez first gained fame representing Anthony, the Florida mom whose televised trial in 2011 ended in an acquittal on charges of killing her young daughter.

Baez and Sullivan teamed up to successfully defend New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez against murder charges in 2017. Hernandez, in prison for a 2015 murder conviction, killed himself five days later.

Weinstein’s selection of Baez and Sullivan generated some controversy.

One of Weinstein’s accusers, actress Rose McGowan, blasted Baez and Sullivan for agreeing to represent Weinstein after defending her in a drug case last year.

Actress Rose McGowan, one of the first of dozens of women to accuse Weinstein of sexual misconduct, called it a “major conflict of interest.”

Baez and Sullivan denied that, saying McGowan’s case had nothing to do with Weinstein. She is not an accuser in his criminal case.

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Follow Sisak at twitter.com/mikesisak and Swenson at twitter.com/aliswenson.

Michael R. Sisak And Ali Swenson, The Associated Press