Jonathan Cuneo, antitrust lawyer who fought for consumers, dies at 70


Jonathan W. Cuneo, a prominent Washington lawyer who represented plaintiffs in major class action, price-fixing and antitrust litigation against auto parts manufacturers, Enron Corp. and other large companies, died July 26 at his home on Martha’s Vineyard off Cape Cod. He was 70.

The cause was melanoma, according to Pamela Gilbert, one of his law partners at Cuneo Gilbert & LaDuca.

In legal circles, Mr. Cuneo was known as a gifted behind-the-scenes strategist.

After the Justice Department won guilty pleas in 2011 from Japanese auto parts manufacturers who conspired to fix prices on components in more than 25 million cars sold to American consumers, Mr. Cuneo represented car dealers in civil suits against the wrongdoers — a novel antitrust strategy.

“Usually in antitrust cases, you think of the direct purchasers,” Gilbert said in an interview. “In this case, it would be the manufacturers of the cars. And then you think of the end payers. And those are the consumers.”

In representing retailers caught up in the middle, “We returned tens of millions of dollars to auto dealers all over America to reimburse them for the overcharges from the price- fixing conspiracy,” Gilbert said. “This type of lawsuit was a kind of invention of our law firm. And Jon was at the forefront of this.”

Mr. Cuneo thought antitrust law served “to restrain naked corporate power,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1988. In addition to his trial work, he co-founded the Committee to Support the Antitrust Laws, the American Antitrust Institute and the National Association of Shareholder and Consumer Attorneys.

In another major case, Mr. Cuneo served as Washington counsel in the sprawling litigation that recovered more than $7 billion for defrauded investors in Enron Corp., the energy and commodities company that went bankrupt amid criminal fraud by executives.

In 1997, he was part of a team of litigators who revealed that R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company specifically targeted children in its “Joe Camel” advertising campaign. U.S. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) called Mr. Cuneo a “real American hero” for his work on the case.

Mr. Cuneo also represented Hungarian survivors of the Holocaust, alleging that gold and other treasures seized by the Nazis and recovered by the U.S. Army was looted by American soldiers in the chaotic final days of World War II.

“This is the first case of its type — a class action brought on behalf of Holocaust survivors that charges the U.S. government with improperly disposing of assets,” Mr. Cuneo told the L.A. Times.

The U.S. government apologized and agreed to pay $25.5 million in restitution.

In 2006, after the funds were dispersed worldwide to financially needy Hungarian Holocaust survivors, Mr. Cuneo said: “While there isn’t enough money in the world to compensate Holocaust survivors for what they went through, the government’s acknowledgment of responsibility and fair, just settlement will foster healing and bring closure to this unfortunate episode in American history.”

Jonathan Watson Cuneo was born in Washington on Sept. 10, 1952. His father was a lawyer and former U.S. intelligence officer who played in the NFL and also owned the North American Newspaper Alliance. His mother, who was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, worked for the British Security office.

After graduating from the St. Albans School, he studied economics at Columbia University, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1974. He graduated from Cornell University’s law school in 1977.

Before founding his private practice in 1988, Mr. Cuneo was a lawyer at the Federal Trade Commission and counsel to U.S. House Judiciary Committee chairman Peter Rodino (D-N.J.).

His marriage to Lisa Burgett ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 29 years, Mara Liasson; a daughter from his first marriage, Lucy Sharon Burgett Cuneo; two children from his second marriage, Mia Rose Cuneo and Eli Cuneo; and two grandchildren.

In a midlife effort to get in shape, Mr. Cuneo took up boxing, taking grueling lessons and even sparring with Gerry Cooney, the former heavyweight pro, in a fundraiser.

“It took a huge leap of faith on his part, a huge amount of physical endurance and commitment,” said Michael Waldman, a former law partner of Mr. Cuneo’s who is now president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. “It’s not a sport for the fainthearted.”

But he was perfectly suited for it.

“Being a trial lawyer requires adrenaline and assertiveness and strategy,” Waldman said. “And he decided not to turn all of that off when he was exercising. He was a man in the arena.”


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