Tuesday, May 21, 2013
By Trevor Maxwell firstname.lastname@example.org
A state ethics board is seeking professional sanctions against six lawyers from Verrill Dana who allegedly "engaged in willful blindness" to the misconduct of their former partner John D. Duncan three years ago.
John D. Duncan, at right, stands with his attorney, Toby Dilworth, as he is sentenced in September 2008 in Cumberland County Superior Court in Portland for stealing almost $300,000 from clients and his former law firm, Verrill Dana.
2008 Press Herald file
Duncan was disbarred and served two years in federal prison for stealing about $300,000 from clients and the prestigious Portland law firm. The lifetime disbarment was the toughest sanction ever imposed on a Maine lawyer, and the case shocked the state's legal community.
Questions have lingered about the response to Duncan's thefts within Verrill Dana, and whether other lawyers -- most notably former managing partner David Warren -- would be charged criminally or brought up for sanctions by the Maine Board of Bar Overseers.
While it appears that no one other than Duncan will face criminal charges, the lead counsel for the Board of Bar Overseers has accused six Verrill Dana lawyers of breaking ethics rules. After investigating the matter for nearly three years, J. Scott Davis recently filed a court complaint outlining the allegations against Warren and James Kilbreth III, who chaired Verrill Dana's executive board in the summer of 2007.
Davis also seeks unspecified sanctions against lawyers Eric Altholz, Mark Googins, Roger Clement Jr. and Juliet Browne, who served on the firm's executive board at the time. Disciplinary hearings for all of the lawyers have been scheduled for Dec. 13 and 14 in District Court in Lewiston.
Justice Donald Alexander of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court will hear arguments from the parties. He alone will decide whether the lawyers broke any professional rules, and whether they should be sanctioned. If Alexander finds that rules were broken, potential sanctions will range from simple reprimand to disbarment.
All six lawyers remain with Verrill Dana. The most serious claims are against Warren, who had led the firm since 1994 and stepped down as managing partner in the wake of the scandal.
According to Davis, Warren should have begun a thorough investigation of Duncan's billing practices immediately after his legal secretary came forward with concerns about suspicious checks. Instead, Davis alleges, Warren accepted a false explanation from Duncan and told secretary Ellie Rommel not to seek legal advice from her private attorney.
If Rommel had listened to that advice, Davis alleges, "Duncan's misconduct would have remained hidden, covered up and never properly reported by any of the firm's board members as they were required to do."
But Rommel continued to blow the whistle and consulted with attorney Daniel Lilley, whose interaction with Verrill Dana forced the firm to bring in outside auditors, Davis wrote.
Warren denies the allegations and says he was not part of any cover-up. In a written answer to Davis' claims, Warren's attorney said Verrill Dana was still investigating the matter and was going through Duncan's files before it had any contact from Lilley.
"The scope and nature of Duncan's misconduct was uncovered by Verrill Dana's own inquiries and promptly reported to the Board of Bar Overseers," Peter Murray wrote.
Murray, of the firm Murray, Plumb & Murray, represents Warren. Melissa Hewey of Drummond Woodsum represents Kilbreth. Peter Rubin of Bernstein Shur represents the other four lawyers.
Hewey spoke for all of the respondents Thursday. She said the complaint filed by Davis, called an "information" in the court proceedings, is not an accurate account of what happened inside Verrill Dana in 2007. The case should be dismissed, she said.
"None of the six respondents ever lied, ever stole any client funds, ever covered anything up," Hewey said. "All they did was believe their law partner. That is not unethical, it is not a violation of the bar rules. We're confident that this will be clear when the whole story is told."
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