SACO — Gary Prolman knows exactly where he’ll be on July 1 at 12:01 a.m.

That’s the moment he’ll be reinstated as an attorney in Maine following his federal conviction on a felony money laundering charge. He plans to go outside his Saco law office and rehang the sign in front, an immediate announcement that he’s back in business.

Prolman, 54, will still be on federal probation for the next two years as he begins taking clients again, but he has been fully cleared by a justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to resume his practice where he left off when his suspension began in 2014.

“I can’t wait for that day to happen,” Prolman said during an interview in his office conference room, where the sign is now leaning against a wall. “I wasn’t sure I would get my license back. I had to think of alternatives.”

Prolman pleaded guilty in 2014 to laundering $177,500 in cash for a marijuana smuggler who is now in prison for drug offenses. Prolman served nine months in federal prison starting in 2015, and concluded his two-year sentence in stages – first in a halfway house and then in home confinement in Saco before his official release by the Federal Bureau of Prisons on May 9.

The Maine Board of Overseers of the Bar had sought to have Prolman disbarred outright. Bar Counsel J. Scott Davis had argued before Justice Donald Alexander in February that if the state’s highest court was unwilling to disbar Prolman, then his license should be suspended for at least four years.

 Justice Donald Alexander

Justice Donald Alexander
2015 file photograph by Joel Page/Staff Photographer

But when Alexander ruled on March 7 instead to reinstate Prolman’s law license, the Board of Overseers of the Bar ultimately chose not to appeal that decision.

“Although the Board advocated for a lengthy suspension or disbarment at the Prolman hearing, Justice Alexander’s findings and conclusions were not ‘clearly erroneous.’ Consequently, Bar Counsel Scott Davis determined that there was not a good faith basis to appeal,” Jacqueline Rogers, executive director of the Board of Overseers of the Bar, said in an email.

Alexander wrote in his 25-page ruling that other than Prolman’s crime in 2012 and his initial reluctance to take responsibility before being sentenced on Dec. 16, 2014, Prolman had been a “valued and trusted attorney” and an important member of society.

“The court also concludes that Prolman’s reinstatement will be in the public interest, and that, with reinstatement, subject to conditions, Prolman can again provide important service to the public as an attorney and resume his role as an important contributor to his community,” Alexander wrote in the decision.

Prolman described the nine months he spent in U.S. Penitentiary Lewisburg in Pennsylvania as a filthy, living hell. In that time, he said he lost 60 pounds and saw unbelievable violence. He came to regard the prison guards as overtly corrupt and even more dangerous than the inmates.

“I will never be in this situation again. I can tell you that. Never,” Prolman said. “I’m very thankful that Justice Alexander came to the conclusion that he did, and I’m not going to squander this opportunity.”

A CHANCE AT REDEMPTION

At the courthouses in southern Maine where Prolman practiced, many attorneys privately expressed disappointment that he had been reinstated, especially while he is still on federal probation for a felony conviction. But none would say so publicly.

Of about two dozen lawyers contacted for this story, most declined to comment or did not respond. Those who agreed to speak mostly said that Prolman is a good person who made a serious mistake.

Jim Burke, a professor at the University of Maine School of Law, said he didn’t know why so many members of the legal community were unwilling to speak publicly about Prolman’s reinstatement.

“A lot of people have been talking about what the hell is going on,” Burke said.

Prolman’s circumstance is relatively rare in Maine, since he voluntarily agreed to have his license suspended with no specific duration. But lawyers in Maine are typically reinstated after discipline, though not as often after being convicted of a crime.

But Burke said people may misunderstand that in granting reinstatement, Alexander was ruling on whether Prolman was a good lawyer and not judging him for committing a crime.

“The point of the system is to protect the public, not to punish a lawyer for prior bad acts,” Burke said. “Here, he didn’t find Mr. Prolman posed a risk going forward.”

Of the 21 attorneys in Maine who were suspended or disbarred after being convicted of a crime since 2000, only one-third of them returned to active practice afterward. Among those who didn’t, four resigned, one withdrew his registration, two died and the others remain suspended or disbarred, according to the Maine Overseers of the Bar.

The American Bar Association tracks national lawyer disciplinary records, but it does not include numbers for all states. Those records indicate that 32 lawyers in Maine applied to be reinstated after disbarment or suspension between 2000 to 2014, and 29 were granted reinstatement during that time.

Compared to national data, Maine appears to grant reinstatements to disbarred or suspended lawyers more often than other states. But because the ABA does not track data from all states and Maine has comparatively few lawyers, it’s difficult to draw firm conclusions.

Between 2010 and 2014, the American Bar Association recorded that a total of 3,222 lawyers from reporting states who had been disbarred or suspended sought reinstatement. Of those, less than half – 1,450 – were granted their requests. About one in five requests, 569, was denied or dismissed. The status of the remaining cases isn’t clear. The ABA does not compile totals for years before 2010.

Attorney James Bowie, who represented Prolman in the bar hearing, was surprised to hear that some lawyers were privately unhappy about Prolman’s reinstatement because he had heard more positive feedback about Prolman’s case than in any other bar discipline case.

“I seldom get feedback from other lawyers about these decisions, but the response to this case has been somewhat overwhelming, both in the volume of comments and in the positive nature of the comments from a wide range of practicing attorneys,” Bowie said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Chapman, chief of the criminal division that prosecuted Prolman, said his office respects the judge’s ruling to reinstate him as an attorney.

“We cooperated with bar counsel in this process,” Chapman said.

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills declined through her spokesman, Timothy Feeley, to comment on Prolman’s reinstatement.

Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson said it was the Maine Supreme Judicial Court’s role to determine whether Prolman was fit to be reinstated, and she is not going to question that decision.

“Gary Prolman had a lot to offer, made a huge mistake and paid dearly for it,” Anderson said. “I believe in redemption.”

Portland-based attorney J.P. DeGrinney described Prolman as a “good lawyer” who has paid his debt.

“Gary is a good guy,” DeGrinney said. “He made a huge mistake, but he’s paid for it.”

FALL FROM GRACE

As a defense attorney before he was convicted, Prolman was well-known and highly regarded in the legal community. He represented several men who were accused in the high-profile Kennebunk prostitution scandal in 2012 and 2013, obtaining an acquittal for one man at trial.

Prolman knew as a young boy growing up in Nashua, New Hampshire, that he wanted to be a lawyer. The son of a successful insurance salesman, he was the middle of three children. After graduating from Middlebury College in Vermont, where he played varsity hockey until he was sidelined by an injury, he went on to graduate from law school at Franklin Pierce Law Center (now the University of New Hampshire School of Law) in 1988. He moved to Maine in 1991 and opened his own law office by 1993.

Prolman, who is not married, also had a lucrative side business as an agent for professional hockey players. He represented promising young players like Brian Dumoulin of the Pittsburgh Penguins franchise and Matt Mangene, a prospect for the Philadelphia Flyers.

But that all came to an end when Prolman admitted to laundering drug money for a former acquaintance, David Jones, whom he met through his personal cocaine dealer. Prolman repeatedly denied, leading up to his sentencing, that he knew Jones was involved in a large-scale marijuana smuggling operation that involved driving and shipping hundreds of pounds of marijuana from growers in California to Maine for resale.

Prolman broke off ties with Jones shortly after Sept. 5, 2012, when a member of Jones’ ring, Raymond Paquette, was arrested in Kansas while driving approximately 106 pounds of marijuana from California to Maine. Jones was in a car trailing Paquette’s and was also arrested but ultimately released.

Federal agents first executed a search warrant at Prolman’s law office at 743 Portland Road in Saco on Nov. 19, 2013. Prolman subsequently accepted a plea deal negotiated on his behalf by his then-attorney, the late Peter DeTroy.

Prolman voluntarily accepted suspension of his law license starting on June 23, 2014. He had already stopped practicing two months before that.

He said in a lengthy phone interview last month, followed by an in-person interview at his office, that he never mingled his dealings with Jones with his law practice and that Alexander acknowledged that in the reinstatement ruling.

“Justice Alexander really listened to everything. I thought he really treated me fairly,” Prolman said.

HORRIFIC CONDITIONS IN PRISON

Prolman described federal prison in Lewisburg as “horrific” from the day he reported there on Jan. 14, 2014.

Within his first few hours of incarceration, he saw a sleeping inmate brutally attacked by three other inmates who used prison-issued padlocks stuffed into socks as improvised flailing weapons.

The trio bashed the sleeping man repeatedly with the lock-filled socks and then kicked him and beat him before he got up, blood streaming down his face and said, “Is that all you’ve got?”

Prolman said he watched in horror as the inmate then proceeded to pummel his three attackers to the ground.

“I was like, ‘I’m not going to survive. This is not going to end well for me,’ ” Prolman said.

While in prison, Prolman went through a 500-hour program for substance abuse. He had abused cocaine and alcohol prior to prison, but said he has been sober and undergone countless drug and alcohol screenings since. Alexander’s reinstatement order requires that Prolman continue substance abuse counseling for several more years after his two-year federal probation term as a condition of practicing law.

“It was life-altering in there. My entire outlook is different,” Prolman said of prison. “I know it’s a cliche, but I had a spiritual awakening. I found my Judaism in there.”

Prolman said that while in prison, guards discriminated against him because he is Jewish and blocked him from speaking at his substance abuse counseling program with other inmates because of his religion.

He said the conditions were deplorable, with mold and the possibility of infection everywhere. He said 100 inmates in his section shared four showers.

“I watched my freedom disintegrate right away. It was just humiliating. It was very difficult. They take everything away from you,” he said.

Prolman’s mother died while he was in prison, and he was unable to attend her funeral. He believes that his crime, conviction and sentence contributed to her death.

“I didn’t have any visitors during my stint. I didn’t want anyone to see me that way,” he said.

Prolman said the letters that people, including colleagues, friends and family, wrote to him while in prison helped carry him through. While there, he wrote more than 500 letters, including about 400 responses to letters he received.

“I think this whole thing has made me a better person,” Prolman said. “I’m able to hit the reset button and start the second part of my life. I think this time, my priorities are going to be different.”