The lawyer Danya Perry earned a reputation for calling out abuse and standing up to powerful men.
She told a New Yorker journalist that Eric Schneiderman physically assaulted her in 2016 after a summer party in the Hamptons, an allegation the magazine described in a story that facilitated the attorney general’s downfall.
In August, when Andrew Cuomo faced allegations of sexual harassment, Perry also told the magazine that the then-governor once stymied her professionally by quashing an investigation into political corruption when it got too close to his allies.
Then her career took a different turn.
As the Cuomo drama unfolded, Perry had quietly taken on a new client: the billionaire investor Leon Black.
He was the very kind of power figure Perry had once made a name for herself by challenging. And Black was going through a #MeToo crisis of his own. The private-equity mogul’s former longtime lover, Guzel Ganieva, filed a civil lawsuit last year accusing him of forcing “sadistic sexual acts” on her during their extramarital affair in the late 2000s and 2010s.
In a complaint that’s become the talk of Wall Street, Ganieva alleged Black raped her in 2014, physically intimidated her throughout their relationship, and once flew her to Palm Beach, Florida, where he introduced her to his friend, the late sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
Black, who has not been charged with any crime, has denied her account, calling it a “wholesale fiction.” He alleged in court filings that Ganieva extorted him out of millions of dollars with threats to go public about their relationship, which he said was entirely consensual. And he even felt compelled to fire off his own lawsuit against Ganieva, claiming she and his former longtime business partner, Josh Harris, plotted to bring him down in a federal racketeering conspiracy.
To some lawyers, Perry’s decision to defend Black — who resigned from Apollo Global Management after an investigation found he had paid $158 million to Epstein for tax and financial advice — doesn’t match the Perry they’ve read about in The New Yorker.
A former federal prosecutor who competes in marathons in her down time, Perry was better known for challenging entrenched power, crusading in the public interest, and speaking up in support of the #MeToo movement, not pointing out reasons a judge shouldn’t believe one of its accusers.
After speaking anonymously with the journalist Ronan Farrow about Schneiderman, she disclosed her identity on Twitter last year, when authorities suspended Schneiderman’s law license in 2021 and he admitted to abuse in past relationships. She also praised Farrow as “always speaking truth to power” when he published his article that detailed her work for Cuomo.
Schneiderman could not be reached for comment for this story. Rich Azzopardi, a spokesperson for Cuomo, said the former governor denied allegations of sexual harassment and that Cuomo did not face any criminal charges for allegations relating to his work with Perry, despite five district attorneys looking at them.
Taking on a client like Black represents a different kind of risk for Perry: alienating would-be clients who may have been drawn to her for her past activism.
Perry told Insider she was persuaded to take the case after reviewing audio recordings and text conversations Black had with Ganieva — and speaking at length with Black.
“I do not lightly take on this kind of a case,” Perry, 50, said.
“Like so many others, I have myself endured sexual assault and harassment, and I do anything in my power to fight against it,” Perry said in an email. “But I will stand up against someone who is hijacking it and weaponizing it by falsely claiming sexual assault. That hurts the movement and hurts us all.”
She added that she’s “perfectly at peace” with her decision to take the case and that, after reviewing the evidence, she felt strongly she was on the right side of history.
Some people contacted by Insider seemed mildly offended at the notion that Perry, who cofounded her 12-member law boutique, Perry Guha, in 2019, should expect any blowback for representing Black. Linda Friedman, a plaintiffs’ lawyer who represents victims of discrimination, was one of them.
Friedman does not know Perry personally, but men, she said, often defend executives accused of horrible crimes and people don’t think twice about whether their actions are contradictory to their character.
Susan Estrich, another lawyer for Black, said she had spent her career fighting for women to be believed. But it doesn’t mean every woman is telling the truth — a lesson she said she learned “painfully” after speaking on Fox News about Duke University lacrosse players who were accused of raping a woman in the 2000s.
The players were later cleared of wrongdoing.
“Danya Perry has nothing to apologize for,” Estrich said.
Perry’s defense of Black might seem incongruous with her past of confronting men like Cuomo and Schneiderman. But interviews with several dozen people who know her paint a picture of a woman who has long operated in Black’s circles — and who has repeatedly made bold choices based on what she believes is right.
Perry has represented clients in all sorts of matters at her boutique firm, from a California trust and estate dispute to discrimination and harassment cases across the country. But recently, it’s her representation of disgraced men after their downfalls that has captured the biggest headlines.
When the attorney Michael Avenatti was sentenced to prison for attempting to extort Nike out of millions of dollars, Perry stepped in to ask the judge for leniency, saying she visited Avenatti in prison and saw the poor conditions in which he was held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, where they had to pass notes through a guard to communicate.
When Michael Cohen was sent back to prison after being released on house arrest, Perry argued the move was retaliatory, the result of Cohen’s work on a forthcoming book on former President Donald Trump, his ex-client. The judge agreed and released Cohen.
It may have seemed like an odd choice for Cohen to pick Perry to defend him. There was no love lost between him and Avenatti, who had sued Trump on behalf of the adult-film actor Stormy Daniels. But Cohen said he was ultimately fine with the dual representation.
“My wife had interviewed several different lawyers — and she felt most comfortable with Danya,” Cohen said. “She is bright and articulate, and she doesn’t come to the table unprepared.”
Like so many others, I have myself endured sexual assault and harassment, and I do anything in my power to fight against it. But I will stand up against someone who is hijacking it and weaponizing it by falsely claiming sexual assault.Danya Perry
Such high-profile clients have landed Perry in the media spotlight in recent years. But unlike other attorneys who have preferred to keep a low profile, Perry has appeared on MSNBC as a legal analyst, written op-eds for CNN, and ignited controversy last year among Cuomo allies when speaking with The New Yorker about her experience working for him in the early 2010s.
In that story, Perry offered a detailed account of her time working as the chief investigator of the Moreland Commission, a unit Cuomo had assembled to ferret out corruption in state politics.
It was perhaps the most publicly scrutinized matter Perry had worked on, and tensions within her unit mounted as some members sought to curtail the scope of her investigation.
Perry and her team had investigated the ties between campaign donations and New York politicians and faced pushback from Cuomo when her team prepared subpoenas for some of his own donors.
She resigned in 2014, before Cuomo disbanded the commission later that year, but felt compelled to revisit her experience as Cuomo faced sexual-harassment allegations and calls to resign as governor.
While Perry’s intentions were to hold Cuomo to account, she later learned of the unintended ripple effects of speaking with the media, as some of the friends of people referenced in the article were taken aback by some of her disclosures.
In her retelling of events, Perry went into detail about text messages and memories she had of her longtime mentor and friend, Steven M. Cohen.
She also rehashed details about another former commission member, Regina Calcaterra, who had sought to abide by Cuomo’s wishes to curtail her investigative powers.
Much of that story had already been documented in the press, but Calcaterra told Insider she found it deeply painful to see the details revived.
Farrow, the New Yorker journalist, emailed her at 6:02 a.m., giving her 12 hours to respond to seven points about her actions from eight years ago. One of the points said she once lunged at Perry with “teeth bared” and “screeched” at her in anger — a description that didn’t appear in print after Calcaterra objected to it as inaccurate and sexist.
She told Insider that the truth about her role on the Moreland Commission was more nuanced and that she was put in an impossible situation made even harder by Perry’s actions. Calcaterra said that by speaking with the press, Perry attacked her without good reason.
Calcaterra said she had already spent more than $150,000 in legal fees defending herself in a US attorney’s office investigation into whether there was wrongdoing in the handling of the commission’s work. Despite the legal costs, they did not bring charges against Calcaterra.
“She has worked so hard just to get where she’s at — nothing has been handed to her,” Calcaterra’s sister, Camille, said, alluding to Calcaterra’s childhood in a foster-care system. “And for someone to say this — for what? What is this lady’s problem? I mentally can’t understand that. What did she get out of it?”
Kathleen Rice, a politician, friend, and former colleague of Perry’s who worked with her on the Moreland Commission and also spoke with The New Yorker, said the nature of Perry’s work put a target on her back.
“There are a lot of people out there who like to rip strong women down,” she said. “To go up against someone as powerful as the governor, I think that comes with some risk. She did it anyway because it was the right thing to do.”
Perry knew she wanted to be a lawyer from an early age. She showed her earliest signs of intellectual combat at the dinner table in a household of six siblings in an Orthodox Jewish enclave of New Haven, Connecticut. Her parents, a literature professor and the head of a social services group, urged their children to study the Torah and contribute to society.
“Our parents always encouraged debate and dialogue and for us to be critical thinkers and to pursue justice,” said Avi, the youngest sibling of the family, who became a financial-crimes prosecutor in Washington, DC. “For that reason, we came up in the same style as Danya — always questioning, probing, encouraged to pursue the truth through the Socratic method.”
The Perry children also traveled the world, their parents preferring museums and sightseeing to beaches and margaritas. As a result, they visited cultural hubs like Paris and lived abroad in Israel. Perry was named after a neighborhood in the latter country that her parents once lived in, Ramat Denya.
Perry’s other brother, Joshua, who practices law with his sister at Perry Guha, said he believed the cultural immersion enabled Perry to blend into her environment and get along with people.
“I have no doubt that some of that has to do with the fact that we were regularly thrown into these different cultures and, not speaking the language, had to figure out how to get along,” he said.
That skill would serve Perry well in the relationships-driven business that is the US legal industry. It also didn’t hurt that Perry went straight from Yale Law School to one of the largest law firms in New York City — Paul, Weiss — or that she spent 11 years inside one of the most reputable prosecutor’s offices in the US.
While working in the Southern District of New York, Perry pursued cases “to the end of the earth,” one of her former colleagues said. Her diligence won her the respect of her peers and eventually earned her a promotion to the deputy chief of its criminal division.
To go up against someone as powerful as the governor, I think that comes with some risk. She did it anyway because it was the right thing to do.Rep. Kathleen Rice
Sometimes, though, Perry’s restraint left as much of an impression as her aggression. In one case involving a conspiracy to hide money in Swiss bank accounts, she declined to force a mother to testify against her son, who was involved in the scheme, Elkan Abramowitz, a defense attorney, said.
“I thought that was really good of her,” he said.
Her cases included charging Long Island Rail Road retirees with pension fraud and prosecuting Olympic athlete Marion Jones over lying to the government about doping.
Adversaries noted Perry’s tenacity in the courtroom, and Cuomo hired her to lead the Moreland Commission. But as much gossip as the commission garnered in New York politics, friends had even more to talk about when the former prosecutor joined forces with a billionaire who had a scorched-earth reputation.
After Perry resigned from the Moreland Commission, she took a job at Ronald Perelman’s investment firm MacAndrews & Forbes, working with the former Cuomo aide Steven M. Cohen.
Perelman, an investor who owned the beauty-products company Revlon, had developed a reputation in the courtroom after having engaged in several bitter lawsuits with his ex-wives and in-laws.
One of his litigations against the in-laws of his late wife, Claudia Cohen, was particularly brutal. Perelman, along with his and Cohen’s daughter Samantha, had sought to claim half the fortune of Samantha’s grandfather Robert when there were five other grandchildren.
After spending more than $20 million on the fight, Perelman lost the case.
The dispute predated Perry, but it caused one of her Southern District of New York friends to question why she would go work for the combative billionaire.
Despite the concern, Perry seemed to fit right in. She got along with Perelman, for the most part, and became a respected member of the company’s in-house law department, often guiding lawyers on how to handle the litigations facing his businesses.
Over time, Perry craved more courtroom experience, and she began consulting friends about the prospect of launching her own practice.
She soon found herself putting in the longest hours she’d worked since her days as a junior associate at Paul, Weiss, sleeping at her desk with her jacket as a blanket.
Perry’s decision to represent Black will undoubtedly mean a welcome stream of legal fees to her 3-year-old firm. But it could also place a chilling effect on clients who once knew Perry as an advocate of victims of discrimination and harassment.
Her ties to Paul, Weiss — Black’s longtime legal advisor — have also prompted speculation as to whether Paul, Weiss is influencing her handling of the Ganieva case, two lawyers observing the dispute said.
Like other lawyers who run small law firms, Perry takes on cases through referrals, from friends at large firms like Paul, Weiss, Quinn Emanuel, and Morrison & Foerster, according to people familiar with the matter.
Such alliances can place pressure on small-firm lawyers to handle their referral matters with special care and in coordination with their large-firm friends, according to lawyers.
To her credit, Perry has maintained her independence in past representations.
In one case, in which she led an investigation into a domestic-violence charge against a partner at Boies Schiller, she stood her ground when tensions surfaced between her and firm leadership, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Robin Davidson, a Boies Schiller spokesperson, denied any suggestion that the firm attempted to control her investigation, adding that they hired her because of her independence.
Keeping that distance may be more difficult this time around.
One of her Paul, Weiss mentors, Brad Karp, was Black’s lawyer for years. And he counted Apollo, the private-equity firm Black founded, as one of his biggest clients.
Legal fees from Apollo and its portfolio companies amounted to more than $100 million a year for Paul, Weiss in or around 2019, according to a person familiar with the matter. Paul, Weiss employed Black’s daughter as an associate in the late 2010s, according to a second person familiar with the matter and a review of her LinkedIn profile.
When Perry was brought into the Ganieva case through one of her Paul, Weiss contacts, Karp got involved and recommended her.
Her experience with extortion cases made her résumé stand out. And her reputation as a dogged former prosecutor lent her greater credibility.
In prior cases, Perry had demonstrated a knack for showing the humanity of her clients, as she did when appealing to a judge on behalf of a man charged with assisting a criminal gambling enterprise.
In court papers, she told the judge her client was the sole caregiver of two special-needs children who required his attention back home in Costa Rica. He got a misdemeanor, walking away from the case without any jail time.
It may be tougher to elicit empathy for a billionaire accused of rape.
And the job has required her to go into attack mode, subpoenaing the publicist Steve Rubenstein for phone records in an attempt to build evidence that might show Ganieva worked with him to leak her story to the media.
As the case unfolds, Perry can expect to face new enemies — and more criticism.
In an op-ed in New York magazine, Ankush Khardori, a lawyer in Washington, DC, and a former Paul, Weiss associate, questioned why progressive lawyers would want to represent someone who helped bankroll a convicted sex offender.
Khardori told Insider that he had nothing against Perry, who he doesn’t know personally. And he mentioned other lawyers defending Black, including Estrich, who once represented former Fox News Chair Roger Ailes over sexual-harassment allegations.
But he noted the reputational risk involved with taking on such cases, adding that the underlying facts often weren’t black and white.
“It’s possible he’s innocent, right?” Khardori said of Black in an interview. “But I think for a lot of people, they would still say they don’t have to be the person defending his innocence.”