The tricks of Gilbert Arenas

Several people saw Gilbert Arenas with guns in the Wizards' locker room last December.

In the days and hours to follow, hard questions were asked. It would have been a great time for Arenas to "come clean" about his dispute with teammate Javaris Crittenton. Lawyers insist that doing so would been a good way to reduce his sentence.

A text message from Arenas, intended for Crittenton, apparently explaining a cover story.

According to prosecutors armed with strong research -- including testimony from many eye witnesses -- Arenas chose a far trickier tactic:

  • He told team officials that he brought the guns to the arena to get them away from his family, even on the same day he told a teammate to take a case holding the guns and put it in his car, which he would presumably drive home ... to his family.

  • That same day he told team officials a second version of events: That he brought the guns to the arena to sell them to a teammate.

  • Arenas told officials that he thought guns were allowed in the locker room -- even though a month before he had been part of a mandatory team meeting which made clear to everybody else in the room that they most certainly were not.

  • In a decisive indictment of Arenas' regard for the judicial proces and the truth, Arenas sent Javaris Crittenton specific instructions about the story he should tell officials (in fairness to Arenas, this story exonerated Crittenton).

  • Arenas changed his story several times about when he brought the guns to the locker room, saying first that he brought them all to the arena weeks before, and then later releasing a statement saying in which he brought at least one on the day of the confrontation -- a version that hurts his case that the incident was meaningless.

  • After denying publicly that there had been a confrontation of any kind, Arenas signed a guilty plea in which he admits there was one.

  • Arenas released public statements expressing remorse, which he has contradicted by telling reporters that he didn't do anything wrong, and that "if I really did something wrong, it would bother me."

What's particularly troubling about all that story-changing is how it points so strongly to a worldview where the criminal justice system is some childish game -- The truth be damned, just make up something to keep yourself out of trouble. It's almost like he's trying to cheat at some video game, which is also something he has confessed to.

Doesn't all that just seem incredibly naive? You can't beat the law like that, can you? He should be embarrassed to have even tried.

But before we get to lecturing Arenas too harshly on not respecting the legal system, or the rule of law, let's consider the biggest, strongest and likely most effective of his varied attempts to avoid harsh punishment. Like rich people in jams everywhere, he hired a very powerful attorney.

Kenneth Wainstein is not just a good lawyer. He has his fingers on many of the buttons that matter in Washington D.C.'s legal system. Most importantly for this case, he recently oversaw the office prosecuting Arenas in this very matter. From 2004-2006, Wainstein was U.S. attorney in the same district. He has also directed the executive office of U.S. attorneys, worked for the F.B.I., founded an important new national security division at the Justice Department. He even advised President George W. Bush on homeland security.

In arguing for jail time for Arenas, assistant U.S. attorney Chris Kavanaugh (who joined the office in 2007, after Wainstein had moved on) wrote that a sentence without jail time would send a bad message, built on the idea that "With enough money, fame, and the right representation, you can avoid paying the price that others in this city would certainly pay in these circumstances."

Kavanaugh was worried that the right attorney might get someone special treatment from the legal system. Now that Arenas has received just about the lightest sentence anyone imagined for him -- 30 days in a halfway house, two years' probation, 400 hours community service and a $5,000 fine -- it's hard not to think that the situation Kavanaugh proposed has come to pass.

Hiring an attorney like Wainstein was certainly not overtly devious, like some of the other things Arenas has done. But it was certainly clever. Who could argue that a special kind of lawyer was essential to keeping him out of jail?

Despite ample evidence Arenas made many crucial errors in the aftermath of the gun incident, in the final analysis, it's hard to imagine he could have gotten a better result. That's a pretty good trick.