December 15, 2010

Secretary questioned handling of lawyer theft

By Trevor Maxwell tmaxwell@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

LEWISTON - Two months after she quit her job as a secretary at Verrill Dana and reported John D. Duncan for writing checks to himself from the account of an elderly client, Ellie Rommel met with the law firm's managing partner.

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Ellie Rommel

Doug Jones/Staff Photographer

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It was August 2007, and Rommel hoped to hear that Duncan would resign and the matter would be reported to authorities.

Instead, Rommel said, David Warren told her that Duncan had not stolen from his client, but had only misappropriated funds from the firm. He had repaid the money and apologized, and would remain with Verrill Dana.

According to Rommel, Warren said he knew Duncan was telling the truth because he had looked Warren in the eye and given his word.

"I said, 'David, you're out of your ... mind,'" Rommel testified Tuesday at a disciplinary hearing for Warren and five other Verrill Dana lawyers.

"I didn't go to Bowdoin College. I didn't go to law school. I graduated from the school of hard knocks, but I'm smarter than that," Rommel said.

One day after Warren's testimony dominated the hearing, Rommel offered a sharply different version of events within Verrill Dana in the summer of 2007. She criticized Warren and said he didn't listen as she insisted that Duncan had committed theft.

The hearing is scheduled to conclude today in Lewiston District Court. Justice Donald Alexander of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court is presiding. He will decide whether the lawyers broke any ethics rules and should face professional sanctions, which could range from a simple reprimand to disbarment.

Alexander is expected to take several days or weeks to issue a written decision.

Rommel's testimony is at the heart of the case presented by J. Scott Davis, lead counsel for the Maine Board of Bar Overseers. Davis seeks sanctions against the Verrill Dana lawyers for "willful blindness" to the misconduct of Duncan.

The defendants are Warren; James Kilbreth III, who chaired Verrill Dana's executive board in 2007; and Eric Altholz, Mark Googins, Roger Clement Jr. and Juliet Browne, who served on the firm's executive board at the time.

Davis claims that the scope and nature of Duncan's thefts would not have been uncovered without the threat of a lawsuit by Rommel in October 2007.

The lawyers disagree. They say their firm's internal review was gaining momentum before lawyer Daniel Lilley contacted the firm on behalf of Rommel.

Warren testified that Rommel never expressed disappointment with his handling of the matter, and in fact told him she was relieved when it appeared that Duncan had taken only money that was supposed to be shared with the full partnership.

Verrill Dana hired auditors to review Duncan's books in October 2007. They found he had stolen roughly $300,000 from clients and the firm over the previous decade. Duncan pleaded guilty to theft and tax evasion. He served two years in federal prison and received a lifetime disbarment, the toughest punishment ever imposed on a Maine lawyer.

Before the revelations emerged, Duncan had a reputation as one of Maine's best trusts and estates lawyers.

Rommel said she and two other staffers gathered evidence showing that he had written checks to himself, while writing on a ledger that the checks were endorsed to a Verrill Dana account.

She said she was terrified to tell the other partners about her suspicions. Rommel was the only member of her family to have graduated from high school, and she had worked hard to get her job at Verrill Dana. She said she had respected Duncan and loved working as his secretary.

"I thought about it for a long, long time," Rommel said. "We had to do something about it, we had to tell somebody. It was there in black and white.

"I knew I had to get out of Verrill Dana. I couldn't work with John anymore. I felt like he was stealing from little old ladies."

Rommel resigned and turned over copies of documents to Greg Foster, a lawyer who worked in the trusts and estates department with Duncan. Foster then went to Warren, the longtime managing partner.

Rommel met with Warren on June 13, 2007. She said he told her that he was investigating the matter.

She said she asked Warren if she could take back her resignation and take short-term disability because of the stress she had experienced. Warren told her he couldn't let her do that, she said, because that would require her to speak with people in human resources.

Testifying on Monday, Warren said it was Rommel who did not want to speak with human resources, and he had agreed to her request. Warren also said that at least twice that summer, he made offers for Rommel to return to Verrill Dana, in a different department.

Rommel ultimately reached a settlement with the firm on a wrongful-termination claim.

 

Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at:

tmaxwell@pressherald.com

 

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