December 14, 2010

Verrill Dana's ex-chief partner denies covering up thefts by attorney

David Warren says his fears about John Duncan's emotional health led to a cautious inquiry.

By Trevor Maxwell
Staff Writer

LEWISTON — In June 2007, the secrets of partner John D. Duncan were slowly making their way through the hallways of Portland's prestigious Verrill Dana law firm.

His secretary had blown the whistle on him.

Ellie Rommel had given other partners in the firm evidence that Duncan had written checks to himself from the account of an elderly client. There were more personal concerns as well.

Rommel had seen pornography on Duncan's office computer, and claimed he was sending and receiving inappropriate e-mails in connection with a homosexual affair.

As the firm's managing partner, David Warren had the job of figuring out how to respond.

Telling his story to a judge Monday – the first time his account has been aired publicly – Warren conceded that Verrill Dana could have uncovered the full scope of Duncan's financial misconduct earlier than it ultimately did.

But Warren said there was no effort to cover up for Duncan. He defended his cautious approach, and said his decisions about how to proceed that summer hinged on two central beliefs.

First, Warren said, he accepted Duncan's word that he had never stolen from any clients. Duncan initially claimed that he had taken only money that was supposed to go to the partnership.

Secondly, Warren said, he was concerned about Duncan's safety.

"He was basically an emotional wreck," Warren told Justice Donald Alexander of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

"I was worried that he was on the edge of committing suicide," Warren said, noting that Duncan was often seen reading the Bible alone in his office. "I did not want to be responsible for pushing him over the edge."

Duncan was expelled from the firm in November 2007, as the extent of his wrongdoing was coming to light through an external audit. He was permanently disbarred and served two years in federal prison for stealing about $300,000 from multiple clients and his Verrill Dana partners.

More than three years after the scandal shook their firm, Warren and five other Verrill Dana lawyers are in Lewiston District Court this week to face allegations that they violated ethics rules.

J. Scott Davis, lead counsel for the Maine Board of Bar Overseers, claims the lawyers were wrong to have accepted Duncan's story, and should have immediately begun a thorough investigation of the matter and reported it to the board.

Davis is seeking professional sanctions against Warren and James Kilbreth III, who chaired Verrill Dana's executive board in 2007. Davis also seeks sanctions against Eric Altholz, Mark Googins, Roger Clement Jr. and Juliet Browne, lawyers who served on the firm's executive board at the time.

After opening statements Monday morning, Warren testified for the rest of the day. Rommel is expected to testify today. The hearings could conclude this afternoon or continue into Wednesday.

Justice Alexander will decide whether the lawyers broke any professional rules and whether they should be sanctioned. Possible sanctions range from a simple reprimand to disbarment. All six lawyers remain with Verrill Dana.

The most serious claims are against Warren, who led the firm from 1994 until he stepped down as managing partner in the wake of the scandal.

In his opening statement, Davis told the judge that while Warren was concerned about Duncan's mental health, he was neglecting his duty to protect Verrill Dana's clients.

Rommel pushed for Duncan to be held accountable, even though it was hard for the secretary to do that, Davis said.

"She couldn't work there, knowing what was going on with Duncan," Davis said. "She was the one who was brave enough to finally do something."

On the witness stand, Warren recounted every step he took in connection with the matter in the summer and fall of 2007.

(Continued on page 2)

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