PORTLAND — With the first major defendant in the high-profile Kennebunk prostitution case scheduled to stand trial in one week, the defendant’s attorney asked the judge Tuesday for permission to withdraw because his client can’t pay him.
Mark Strong Sr.’s attorney, Daniel Lilley, appeared before Justice Nancy Mills for a hearing on a motion to postpone the trial, which is scheduled to start Jan. 22 in York County Superior Court in Alfred.
Mills denied that motion and another, hand-delivered motion to move the trial. Lilley sought the change of venue because of the potential difficulty of getting an impartial jury in York County and because it would give him more time.
Lilley then asked to withdraw from the case, saying Strong can’t continue paying him for the anticipated two- to three-week trial and doesn’t have the resources to hire expert witnesses.
“We shouldn’t be forced to try this case for nothing,” Lilley told the judge. “We don’t want to go to trial unprepared. It’s not my style.”
Strong, 57, a businessman from Thomaston, is accused of conspiring with Alexis Wright, 30, a former Zumba instructor from Wells, to run a meticulously documented prostitution business out of her studio in Kennebunk dating back to 2010.
Strong is scheduled to stand trial on 59 counts of promotion of prostitution, violation of privacy and conspiracy to commit those misdemeanors.
Wright is charged with 106 counts, including promotion of prostitution, engaging in prostitution, invasion of privacy, conspiracy, tax offenses and receiving welfare benefits when ineligible. Her trial is tentatively scheduled to begin in May.
Strong and Wright have pleaded not guilty.
Mills asked Lilley on Tuesday to prepare a written motion on his request to withdraw from the case and said she wanted to hear from Strong, who was not in court for the hearing.
“I would like to have Mr. Strong here, to hear his thoughts on the motion to withdraw,” the judge said. “I need to understand Mr. Strong’s position in this.”
Lilley said the only day he is available for a hearing with his client present is Friday, the final business day before the trial starts — Monday is Martin Luther King Day.
The judge agreed to hear the motion Friday.
Hours after Tuesday morning’s hearing, Lilley held a news conference in his offices on Portland’s waterfront. He sat at the head of a conference table that was covered with discovery evidence in Strong’s case — piles of binders, external computer hard drives and piles of DVDs.
“I’m not saying I want to quit at all,” Lilley said. “I’m in a situation in which I cannot possibly fight the resources, the unlimited resources as it were, of the state with the nickels and dimes my client has left after his business was destroyed by adverse publicity in this case.”
Reiterating arguments he had made in court, he told reporters that investigators from municipal and county law enforcement, state police, the state Attorney General’s Office and the Secret Service have all contributed to the case.
“I’ve never seen such a case, such a minor case particularly, with such great resources of this state expended, resources I didn’t know we had,” he said. “The person with the most money should not be allowed to prevail in this case.”
Lilley said he doesn’t know how the judge will rule on his motion to withdraw, but if Mills rejects it he will have no choice but to proceed unpaid.
Melvyn Zarr, a professor at the University of Maine School of Law, said there isn’t much case law on an attorney asking to withdraw from a case shortly before a trial, partly because the decision is ultimately up to the judge.
Zarr said he has been encouraging his law students to attend such hearings to get firsthand court experience, especially on difficult, high-profile cases.
The lead prosecutor in the case, York County Deputy District Attorney Justina McGettigan, opposed Lilley’s motions to postpone the trial and change the venue.
She presented the judge with a preliminary list of 30 witnesses who have been subpoenaed for the trial, and said questionnaires have been sent to 250 potential jurors.
The list of witnesses includes 12 state police officers, including four from the Major Crimes Unit; police officers from municipal departments; cellphone company and bank representatives; a witness from Toppings Pizza in Kennebunk; landlords for Wright’s studio and business office; and Kennebunk’s building inspector.
McGettigan said she may add witnesses. Lilley has yet to introduce a list of witnesses, but said at the news conference that he expects to call people from Wright’s alleged client list of about 150 people, possibly including some who haven’t been charged.
Wright allegedly kept detailed records of her clients, including prominent figures — one reason the case has drawn international attention.
Kennebunk police have been listing the people charged as Wright’s clients on biweekly arrest blotters. The initial lists, released in the fall, included as many as 21 names, but more recent lists have included only one or two, with some blotters listing no new names in the case.
Other suspects have pleaded guilty before criminal complaints could be issued against them.
At least 66 people have been charged with the misdemeanor of engaging a prostitute in connection with Wright. As of Tuesday, 17 men had pleaded guilty or been found guilty and been fined. Fourteen of them have been identified previously.
Since Jan.1, three more have pleaded guilty in York County Superior Court: Robert Labonte, 62, of 8 New County Road in Saco; Clinton Ray, 41, of 150 Falmouth St. in Portland; and James Ferreira, 49, of 165 Sandy Hill Road in South Portland.
Labonte was fined $1,000 plus $210 in fees and court costs. Ray and Ferreira were fined $500 each plus $110 in fees and court costs.
The District Attorney’s Office identified the three men this week in response to a Freedom of Access request filed by the Portland Press Herald.
Staff Writer Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at: