Former Prosecutor Disciplined for Contacting Alibi Witnesses through Fictitious Facebook Account

The Ohio Supreme Court in Disciplinary Counsel v. Brockler recently imposed a stayed suspension on an ex-prosecutor who used a fictitious Facebook account to contact alibi witnesses in a criminal case that he was prosecuting. The discipline came after the prosecutor had been fired for “his unethical conduct in creating false evidence, lying to witnesses and another prosecutor, and damaging the prosecution’s chances in a murder case . . . .”

The Court found that the prosecutor doubted the alibi witnesses’ stories and created a fictitious Facebook account to contact the witnesses.  In setting up the account, the male prosecutor used a pseudonym, posed as a woman, and added pictures, group affiliations, and “friends” that he based on the defendant’s jailhouse telephone calls and Facebook page.  He contacted the witnesses claiming that he was romantically involved with the defendant, and he discussed the alibi as if it were false.  He had separate Facebook chats with two witnesses, and he tried to get them to admit that they were lying for the defendant, or would lie for him, and he tried to convince them to talk with the prosecutor.  After chatting with them for several hours, he thought that they were becoming suspicious so he printed out copies of the chats, put them in the case file, and deleted the Facebook account.

Subsequent to being fired and before his disciplinary hearing before the Board of Professional Conduct, the prosecutor gave press interviews in which he claimed that such ruses where common among prosecutors to get at the truth and that he did this to keep a murderer behind bars.  A year after he was fired, the defendant was convicted of aggravated murder and other related charges.

Prior to the hearing, the prosecutor entered into a stipulation that he had violated Rule 8.4(c), which prohibits a lawyer from engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.  He urged the disciplinary board to carve out an exception for “prosecutorial investigation deception.”The board refused to do so, noting that it had  previously disciplined three non-prosecutors for engaging in dishonest conduct involving contact with witnesses in their clients’ cases.  The board also found the former prosecutor guilty of Rule 8.4(d), engaging in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.

The Ohio Supreme Court upheld the board’s findings, but split 4-3 on the sanction of a stayed one year suspension from the practice of law.  Two of the dissenting justices favored the one year suspension without a stay, and one justice favored an indefinite suspension.  In the prior cases involving non-prosecutors, two lawyers received stayed six-month suspensions for making misrepresentations to a client’s former landlord to see if the landlord would slander the client, and one lawyer received a one-year suspension, six months stayed, for intimidating a deposition witness by creating the false impression that the lawyer had compromising person information that could be used against the witness.

This case, and other cases, should serve as warnings about the limits of advocacy.  While seeking truth is noble, using deceit and misrepresentations in an effort to help one’s case is going beyond what the ethics rules allow.

Former GE General Counsel Ben Heineman Gives Advice to In-House Counsel

The April 2016 issue of Corporate Counsel Magazine (subscription required) features an article by Ben W. Heineman, Jr., who served as GE’s senior vice president-general counsel from 1987 to 2003 and then senior vice president for law and public affairs from 2004 until his retirement at the end of 2005. Heineman is currently a senior fellow at Harvard’s schools of law and government. The article contains excerpts from Heineman’s much-anticipated forthcoming book, The Inside Counsel Revolution: Resolving the Partner-Guardian Tension (Ankerwycke, 2016).

In the book, Heineman makes the case for his ambitious vision of the modern general counsel: “a lawyer statesperson who is an outstanding technical expert, a wise counselor and an effective leader, and who has a major role [in] assisting the corporation [to] achieve the fundamental goal of global capitalism: the fusion of high performance with high integrity and sound risk management.” In carrying out this role, the general counsel must resolve “the most basic problem confronting inside lawyers: being partner to the board of directors, the CEO and business leaders but ultimately being guardian of the corporation.” Accordingly, the book provides some guidance on how to resolve the partner-guardian tension that is inherent in the role.

The book can be pre-ordered here.

Deferred Prosecution Agreements Reached with Former Dewey & LeBoeuf Lawyers

It’s always a good idea to remind your students to be careful if they should ever take on the responsibility of managing a law firm, especially in times of financial bust. If you have been following the Dewey & LeBoeuf criminal trial, you know that the jury deadlocked in October of last year on dozens of charges against Steven H. Davis, the former chairman of Dewey, and two other former executives of the law firm, Stephen DiCarmine and Joel Sanders. The three men were accused of being the architects of an accounting fraud that enabled Dewey to defraud its lenders and creditors during much of the financial crisis.

In January of this year, Manhattan prosecutors reached a deferred prosecution agreement with Steven H. Davis. The agreement runs for five years and prohibits Davis from practicing law in New York during that period.

In February, prosecutors reached a deferred prosecution agreement with Zachary Warren, one of the four original defendants, just weeks before he was supposed to go on trial in the New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan. Notably, Warren was not a lawyer when he worked as the client relations manager at Dewey & Leboeuf. After leaving Dewey, he went on to graduate from Georgetown Law Center and clerked for a federal judge.  He plans on working at Williams & Connolly in the fall.   The agreement requires Warren to perform 350 hours of community service as part of a one year agreement.

The Manhattan prosecutors are planning to retry the case against DiCarmine and Sanders.

Articles about the agreements reached with Davis and Warren can be found here and here.

New ABA Opinion on Ethical Duty when Client Documents are Subpoenaed

In Formal Opinion 473 (Feb. 17, 2016), the ABA provides new guidance to lawyers receiving subpoenas for client documents or information.  The opinion states that whenever a lawyer receives a subpoena or any other compulsory process for documents or information relating to the representation of a client, several obligations are implicated.  First, the lawyer must consult with the the client, if the client is available.  Next, unless the client instructs otherwise, the lawyer must assert all reasonable claims against disclosure and seek to limit the scope of any disclosure.  Next, if ordered to produce any information, the lawyer should consult with the client on whether to appeal the ruling.  Finally, if the client and the lawyer disagree on how to proceed, the lawyer should consider whether to withdraw from the representation pursuant to Rule 1.16.

The new opinion goes into some detail to explain what the lawyer should do if the client is unavailable, and to the duty to take steps to protect client confidentiality.  The opinion should be a very helpful resource to any lawyer facing attempts to pierce client confidentiality.

The new opinion is also a useful addition to Formal Opinion 10-456 (July 14, 2010), which addressed the disclosure of client information to a prosecutor when a lawyer’s former client brings an ineffective assistance of counsel claim.  Formal Opinion 10-456 makes clear that a lawyer may only disclose confidential information that the lawyer believes is reasonably necessary for the lawyer’s self-defense.

 

Prosecutorial Accountability – An Optimistic Future

Bruce Green and Ellen Yaroshefsky recently posted a new article on SSRN, Prosecutorial Accountability 2.0.  They identify several rhetorical and regulatory shifts that they claim are leading to an era of new prosecutorial accountability.  In their carefully crafted article, they argue that information technology is the main driver behind this shift to hold prosecutors accountable for their actions. They claim that the pendulum long fixed on courts and the media presuming that prosecutors could do no wrong has swung to a more skeptical position.  Let’s hope they are right. Anyone interested in the criminal justice system should read this article.

New Study Out: The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys

As a former Lawyer Assistance Program Executive Director at Lawyers Concerned for Lawyer in Massachusetts, I was distressed by the new study that reveals: (1) young lawyers are at an increased risk of problem drinking and mental health issues; and (2) overall these issues in the legal profession may be higher than previously thought.  The study was conducted jointly by the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP) and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.

According to the study:
  • 21% of licensed, employed attorneys are problem drinkers;
  • 28% struggle with some level of depression; and
  • 19% demonstrate symptoms of anxiety.
Each semester, I take a few minutes in PR to address the availability of LAPs for lawyers and law students.  And, I include coverage of Rule 8.3 at the same time. If you’re interested in talking points, feel free to email me – murphyme@wfu.edu.  I also have had LAP staff and members speak with my class, with great success.  Video conferencing makes this even easier today.  In addition, CoLAP has a range of resources, including links to LAPs in each state, speaker lists, and articles.

More on the study from the ABA here; from the ABA Journal here; and from the NYTimes here.  A copy of the study from the Journal of Addition Medicine is available here.