Tag Archives: conflict of interest

You Can Love Your Lawyer Too Much – Update for August 9, 2017

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.


defiance170811There’s an old legal joke about the difference between an attorney and a rooster. The punch line goes something like “A rooster clucks defiance.

Putting some meat on those bones is New York attorney Harvey Slovis. Harv represented Oksana Romalis, a school teacher caught up in a multi-defendant scam to rip off the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. The Conference is a not-for-profit organization that supervises and administers several funds that make reparation payments to victims of Nazi Germany, distributing hundreds of millions of dollars annually in direct payments to tens of thousands of victims in 80 countries and territories. The government alleged that Oksana and others recruited people who lived at about the right time to be victims, and engineered phony applications for compensation. The head of one of the Conference funds would then approve the bogus claims in exchange for a cut of the payment. The decade-long fraud stung the Conference for over $57 million.

Only three of the 31 defendants went to trial. Oksana was one of them. In a post-conviction petition she filed under 28 USC 2255, Oksana claimed that her lawyer was ineffective for not telling her that she could get the 46-month sentence she ended up with, which was her reason for rejecting a government offer of a 21-27 month sentencing range.

Last week, the district court rejected Oksana’s ineffective assistance claim, holding that a lawyer’s failure to accurately predict that her sentencing range might start 10 months above the sentencing range offered by the government was not a big enough difference to show that she was prejudiced by counsel’s overly-rosy predictions that she could win at trial.

lovelawyerB170811But the more interesting allegation Oksana made, rejected by the court, was that she and “and Slovis were involved in a relationship, ‘frequently went on dates together, and became intimate’.” The court noted that “in text messages between the two, Slovis and Romalis expressed affection for each other and often used terms of endearment. Romalis says that her decision to reject the Government’s plea offer was based on her intimate relationship with Slovis. Romalis also speculates that “Slovis was motivated by romance and money,” and “was stringing her along in order to prolong their relationship.”

The district court was unimpressed. To be sure, a defendant’s 6th Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel includes the right to representation by conflict-free counsel. But conflict-free counsel does not necessarily mean that the 6th Amendment enforces the canons of legal ethics. The court said, “the existence of an intimate relationship between a defendant and counsel may not always amount to a conflict of interest, even if it violates the code of professional ethics.”

lawyerlove170811Here, Oksana was obligated to prove that her affair with Harvey either adversely affected his performance or otherwise prejudiced her interests. Oksana speculates that Harvey improperly advised her in conjunction with the plea offers because he wanted to continue their relationship as long as possible. However, the district court held, Oksana had to “provide more than that to demonstrate that Slovis’s performance was adversely affected by his relationship with her.” At sentencing, Oksana tried to convince the court she had only gone to trial instead of pleading guilty because she knew that if she was convicted, she would lose her teaching license. That assertion came back to bite her. The court didn’t buy her 2255 claims that Harv had advised her wrong on plea offers because she was his “squeeze.” Instead, the court held Oksana to her prior claim she had rejected the offers because she hoped to win at trial and keep her teaching certificate.

Sec. 2255 directs a district court judge to consider a defendant’s claims in light of the entire record of the trial and post-conviction proceeding. That’s what the judge did here, much to Oksana’s chagrin.

Harv is probably not out of the woods. Most jurisdictions have rules of professional conduct that prohibit a lawyer sleeping with a client, which is enshrined in American Bar Association Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.8(j). We at least hope that Harvey didn’t bill Oksana for the time they spent horizontally. It’s happened before.

Romalis v. United States, Case No. 1:11-cr-00120 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 4, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root


The Difference Between a Lawyer and a Rooster – Update for June 7, 2017

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.

MY LAWYER IS A M*****F*****

There is an old riddle asking the difference between a lawyer and a rooster. The answer, of course, is that a rooster clucks defiance.

screw170607Defendants often complain that their lawyers screwed them. Seldom is there a case where everyone else complains that defense counsel screwed the defendant’s mother… and means that in the most literal sense.

Johnathan DeLaura had a serious problem, having been charged with multiple child pornography counts after being caught in a “sting” that left him on the losing side of a mountain of evidence. Johnathan’s mother, who undoubtedly believed in her son’s innocence, located lawyer Gary Greenwald and made the fee deal: she paid Gary a $25,000 retainer against future work and he began representing Johnathan.

The “horizontal fee” is an infamous legend in the legal profession, if not in the plush offices of the white-shoe law firms, then certainly in the shabby corridors of sole practitioners who survive on court appointments and the occasional paying client. A “horizontal fee,” of course, is payment for legal services exacted by the lawyer in a horizontal and unclothed position, that is to say, payment in sex instead of in money.

Sometime after Gary began representing Johnathan, the U.S. Attorney’s Office had reason to believe that the lawyer was having a sexual affair with Johnathan’s mother. No one knows for sure whether such an affair occurred (except for Gary and Mom). If their sexual tryst happened at all, it began when Mom hired Gary and ended a few months later, right about the time Johnathan took a plea deal.

aba170607The prosecutor confronted Gary with his suspicions. Gary coyly answered some questions but refused to answer others, leaving the Assistant U.S. Attorney believing that Gary “certainly suggested to us that the information that we had received was, was correct.” The conversation led the prosecutors to believe that Gary had forgiven “significant legal fees” in connection with the relationship. The classic “horizontal fee.”

The AUSA reported his suspicions to the district court, telling the judge he believed there was a potential conflict, that the conflict was personal and sensitive, that Gary denied any conflict, that a hearing on the conflict was necessary, and that Johnathan should have independent counsel to advise him on the conflict.

The judge called the prosecutor and Gary into chambers, and asked Gary about the allegation in what the Court of Appeals called “an eyebrow-raising colloquy.” Gary refused to answer the judge’s questions, and suggested the judge instead deduce the answers from the plot of an underperforming 2000 movie named The Contender. The appalled judge, said: “You won’t deny it. You won’t deny it. You want to invoke a movie, that’s fine. So let’s have the hearing.”

At the hearing, the district court appointed another lawyer to give Johnathan independent advice, and the government explained its concerns. Gary again refused to answer questions about his relationship, if any, with Johnathan’s mother. This put the court in a quandary, because the law requires that – which a conflict of interest charge is leveled – the court first has an “inquiry” obligation, to investigate the facts in order to determine whether the attorney in fact suffers from an actual conflict, a potential conflict, or no genuine conflict at all. Only then is there to be a hearing at which the defendant may waive the conflict (if possible) or ask for new counsel.

The district court did what it could, and during the hearing asked Johnathan if he wanted to waive the conflict, assuming for the sake of argument that there even was a conflict. Johnathan said he would waive the conflict, but employed enough logic to knot a pretzel stick:

If a sane person were to listen to this and say the allegation is true, then logically they would know that there obviously is a conflict and they would never accept anything. They would throw this away… [T]o state to me “okay, you have to assume that this is true and then make a decision upon that,” well, logic would, would–you know, it would be illogical to continue if it were true.

The court reluctantly accepted this “waiver” and went forward. Ultimately, Johnathan got a 400-month sentence.

conflictmix170607After reflecting on the reality of what a 35-year sentence meant, Johnathan appealed – now represented by a different lawyer – alleging that Gary had a conflict of interest (and that his deal with the government gained him nothing). Meanwhile, Gary died, meaning that he is likely to be only marginally less forthcoming in any future testimony. Two days ago, the 2nd Circuit – clearly troubled by the whole affair – turned down his appeal, while virtually assuring him of a hearing on any forthcoming 2255 motion.

So, assuming the fact as alleged are right, what might the conflict be? The Circuit accepted the government’s analysis:

(1) because his relationship with Mom ended, Gary might bear a grudge against Johnathan or might want to spend as little time with him as possible;

(2) given the ethical and personal problems with the relationship, Gary might have an interest in rolling over for the prosecution, in order to persuade the government not to report him to the disciplinary committee; or

(3) the fee arrangement may have been based on the relationship, so that when Gary was no longer scoring with Mom, he might just want to end the representation quickly knowing he wasn’t going to be paid anything more.

The appellate panel framed the problem as this: If the waiver is valid, Johnathan has no claim. But if the waiver is invalid – either because the conflict is unwaivable, because it was not knowing and intelligent, or because the district court failed to make the required inquiry – then the Circuit has to consider the underlying conflict claim itself. If the conflict were potential, Johnathan would have to show it somehow prejudiced him. If the conflict were actual, however, he would only have to make the lesser showing of adverse effect.

shark170607The 2nd complained that “this record allows us to answer few of those questions. We do not know whether there was a sexual relationship (or its timing, duration, or terms), whether a conflict arose from it, whether that conflict was so severe as to be unwaivable, or whether DeLaura was harmed by it. An evidentiary hearing would be needed to sort this out. Because the Supreme Court has expressed a preference for resolving ineffectiveness claims on collateral review… we affirm the conviction rather than remand the case to the district court. But in the event DeLaura’s new attorney files a habeas petition, we think an evidentiary hearing may be in order and that DeLaura’s ineffectiveness claim would merit searching evaluation.”

The Circuit’s deferral of the question is unremarkable. The same, however, cannot be said of the facts. We are puzzled that the district court did not call Mom to the stand during the hearing and ask her. Whatever the reason, Mom’s visits to her son must be pretty interesting.

United States v. DeLaura, Case No. 14-1204 (2nd Cir., June 5, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root