MARK ZAID '89
2001: I Sue Governments
Where does an international mogul turn when he suspects the United States
government knows something about the death of his son and his son's friend,
the most glamorous of the British royals?
For Mohammed Al-Fayed, whose son, Dodi, died with Princess Diana in a 1997
car crash in Paris, the answer is Mark Zaid, a Washington, D. C., attorney whose
expertise on the Freedom of Information Act has earned him a far-flung reputation
as someone who can cut through bureaucratic obfuscation in the search for answers
to conspiracy-riddled questions.
"I sue governments," says Zaid, succinctly summarizing his work as an of counsel
attorney to the law firm of Lobel, Novins & Lamont.
"I force the government to disclose documents and then I read the documents.
If the case is a good one, if it's a strong one, the government will never allow
it to go to trial. They will settle. In cases against the government, a settlement
is a victory."
And while that may seem tedious-or decidedly unglamorous given popular media
portrayals of the legal process-the chance to pore through even selectively
edited archives of a federal agency sets the heart of the former double major
in history and political science racing.
"I get to litigate history," he says. "I just absolutely love what I'm doing
because I get to deal with all of my interests through the law."
Zaid earned his law degree at Albany Law School, shortly thereafter moving
to Washington, where he found that his chief interest-discovering what governments
know and why they don't want to admit it-was in demand.
In his latest high-profile case, he has been retained by the Fayed family in
a lawsuit to force U.S. agencies to release information they have on the Fayeds,
Princess Diana, and the couple's driver, Henri Paul.
Since the August 31, 1997, crash, rumors have abounded that the three were
murdered as part of a British-driven conspiracy to ensure that the younger Fayed,
an Egyptian Muslim, would not marry Diana.
As far-fetched as that may seem to some, Zaid says the plot thickens as more
details come to light. For example, shortly after the crash, a "prominent entertainment
lawyer" and suspected CIA operatives offered to sell the Fayed family purported
CIA documents confirming the plot on the princess's life.
The documents turned out to be forgeries, but the U.S. government refuses to
pursue a fraud case against the sellers, Zaid alleges, in part because the CIA
would have to disclose more than it wants to about the individuals involved
in the case and perhaps about the tragedy itself.
Zaid emphasizes that the lawsuit doesn't claim that U.S. agencies were involved
in the accident, only that they know more than they have indicated.
It's not the first time Zaid has found himself in the middle of a story line
that might have been lifted from a box office blockbuster.
He represented political activist and columnist Arianna Huffington in her efforts
to track down information that the late M. Larry Lawrence, a major contributor
to the Democratic Party and ambassador to Switzerland, had lied about his military
credentials-resulting in the 1997 removal of Lawrence's body from Arlington
Zaid frequently represents authors searching for more about the Kennedy assassination,
UFOs, Gulf War syndrome, anthrax, and other hot topics. He represented several
former Secret Service agents assigned to Kennedy, including one who was accused
of accidentally killing the president.
And he represented the family of John Wilkes Booth in their efforts to exhume
the body in his grave in an attempt to confirm whether it was indeed that of
the infamous assassin.
"How many lawyers get to litigate the Lincoln assassination and the Kennedy
assassination in the same year?" Zaid asks.
He's probably best known as the lawyer representing about 40 families whose
loved ones died aboard Pan Am 103 when it exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland,
on December 21, 1988. Two Rochester students, Eric Coker '90 and Katharine Hollister
'90, were among the 270 people killed in the explosion.
Zaid was the primary draftsman of an amendment to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities
Act to allow victims of terrorism to pursue civil litigation against terrorist
He filed the first lawsuit against the government of Libya on behalf of the
Meanwhile, more than 10 years after the crash, the Libyan government agreed
to a criminal trial of its two nationals accused of planting a bomb on the plane.
That trial concluded in January with one defendant found guilty and the other
1989: A Budding Conspiracy Theorist?
As a student working with Jesse Moore, now a retired professor of history,
Zaid chose the topic of the Kennedy assassination for his senior thesis.
Moore remembers Zaid as a "very engaging, very inquisitive, and very serious"
"He seemed to be deeply affected by the research he did for the thesis," Moore
says. "He thought that the truth did not come out and that may be why he is
so interested in government operations now."
The two have stayed in touch in the years since. As Zaid remarked during last
fall's Sesqui Weekend (which, he assures, "I wouldn't have missed for anything"):
"In many ways the further I get from the time I attended the University, the
closer I try to stay to it.
"I enjoyed the celebration, not only seeing how the school itself has developed,
but also seeing how its alumni have contributed to society.
"Memories do not fade over time when you stay in touch, and the University
is very much a part of my history and in some ways my family as well." Scott
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