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Friday, May 2, 2008

Big Law to Big House

From BigLaw to the Big House: What Can Recently Convicted Firm Leaders Expect in Lock-Up?
The American Lawyer by Ross Todd - May 2, 2008

When Bill Lerach, Dickie Scruggs and Mel Weiss (formerly of Coughlin Stoia, the Scruggs Law Firm and Milberg, respectively) check into prison, each will be handed a uniform, photographed, fingerprinted, and asked to disrobe for a mandatory cavity search. Whatever personal property they have will be taken from them and inventoried. It will either be held until their release or shipped back home. Inmates' families often report being startled when civilian clothing lands unannounced on their doorstep a few weeks after their loved one was incarcerated. Lerach, Scruggs and Weiss will be shown to their living quarters, most likely a bunk bed in a barracks-style dormitory typical of minimum-security camp facilities. The population is usually a mix of drug offenders, white-collar criminals and longer-term detainees approaching the end of their sentences. Fights are few; misbehavior can mean transfer to a higher-security facility with bars, barbed wire and watchtowers. Each will be assigned a job, such as plating food for fellow prisoners. They will be able to keep a few hundred dollars in a commissary account that can be replenished by friends and family through Western Union wire transfers or money orders sent to a Bureau of Prisons office in Des Moines. (Transfers should include the inmate's eight-digit identification number for processing.)

While in jail, Lerach et al. may see some familiar faces. One lawyer recently released from the prison camp in Otisville, N.Y. (near the New Jersey and Pennsylvania borders) says there was usually about a half-dozen lawyers inside. The lawyer, who declined to be identified, says the group was well regarded and approached frequently for help with appeals or habeas corpus petitions. But, like other prisoners, he says, they spent most of their time on more mundane pursuits, such as mopping floors. As long as they behave, they'll have the privilege of making 300 minutes' worth of calls per month, 400 during November and December. (Monitored by the Bureau of Prisons, of course.) They can get mail, but it will be searched for contraband. And there will be noise.

"There's snoring and there's shouting and there's yelling and there's loud music," says Webster Hubbell, the former No. 3 at the U.S. Department of Justice under President Bill Clinton who served 16 months at the federal prison camp in Cumberland, Md., for bilking the Rose Law Firm and clients out of more than $450,000. It's fair to say that these will be strange and intimidating circumstances for the deposed kings of the plaintiffs bar. Lerach (prisoner no. 46683-112) was ordered to surrender no later than April 21 to begin serving his two-year sentence; Weiss's plea agreement suggested a sentence between 18 and 33 months in prison; and Scruggs faces up to five years for conspiracy. Luckily, for the inmates-to-be, there's a small but dedicated cadre of professionals ready to help them with the transition. This cottage industry is populated by lawyers, social workers, former prison officials and psychologists. They help the convicted (and their families) prepare to do time.

Alan Ellis is a San Francisco Bay Area lawyer who specializes in what he calls "postconviction" work. His clients have included shopping mall magnate A. Alfred Taubman, politician Lyndon LaRouche, and "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh. As a resource for clients and their lawyers, Ellis (with J. Michael Henderson) wrote the Federal Prison Guidebook. The book is filled with useful tips: Visiting the U.S. penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind.? Stay at Larry Bird's Homecourt Hotel. Want a full-time rabbi on staff? Try the Federal Correctional Institute in Otisville, N.Y. But Fodor's this ain't. The book details visiting hours, spending limits at the local commissary, and vocational and apprenticeship programs, but there's no five-star rating schemes or pictures to help the future inmate gauge their prison destination. Ellis charges $500 an hour for his advice. Webster Hubbell gives his for free. Though he now works in the insurance industry, he used to counsel inmates under the auspices of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, a Baltimore-based nonprofit founded in 1977 to promote alternatives to incarceration. His first bit of advice: Leave the golf clubs behind. "The stories of long ago, where there are tennis courts and swimming pools, just aren't true," says Hubbell.

More advice comes from Herbert Hoelter, a social worker who founded and runs the NCIA, and whose clients have included Martha Stewart and Michael Milken. He says that it's hard for high-powered professionals, used to playing by their own rules, to adjust to prison regulations. He tells the story of one client - a lawyer at a federal prison camp - who recently had a stay in special housing, a.k.a. solitary confinement. When asked to give a urine sample, the lawyer was unable to micturate on demand. He spent the next three weeks in solitary, even though he filled the cup just two hours later. "It's a shock to most white-collar defendants how unjust the justice system is," says Hoelter. "Our advice is to just get into a routine." On the other hand, routine can be deadening, particularly for lawyers who are used to stretching their minds around the frontier of securities laws. "Your thought process atrophies," says the lawyer from Otisville. "There's very little of a constructive nature to do." It is possible to find something positive in the experience, report some ex-cons. Hubbell, known in prison as the "Big Easy" for his size and laid-back demeanor, exercised daily and dropped nearly 100 pounds while he was in prison. "You try to get the years back on the back end," he says. On a similar note, Alan Ellis advises clients to treat prison time as a sabbatical. "You can take those two years and add five years to your life physically, mentally and spiritually," he says.

That, or a lawyer can become embittered. Take San Francisco criminal defense attorney J. Tony Serra, who was locked up in 2006 for failing to pay taxes. While at Lompoc Federal Prison Camp, south of Pismo Beach, Serra wrote a letter to California Lawyer magazine: "We now sleep in foul-odored, overcrowded, double-tiered bunks. . . . Our mail, our phone calls, our every move is scrutinized." Serra closed with a flourish: "My mind paces like a caged tiger, and when I am released I promise that I will attack!" Indeed, Serra pounced in March 2007, filing a lawsuit on behalf of California inmates demanding higher wages. Serra made 19 cents an hour watering bushes. The suit is pending. Benjamin Brafman, lawyer for Mel Weiss, says he hasn't hired anyone for jailhouse consulting; John Keker of Keker & Van Nest, who represents both Scruggs and Lerach, wouldn't discuss the issue. At press time, destinations for the three had not been set. But it's almost certain to be a place where the balance on one's commissary debit cards matters more than knowledge of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

treat them like the dogs they are

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See Video of Senator John L. Sampson's 1st Hearing on Court 'Ethics' Corruption

The first hearing, held in Albany on June 8, 2009 hearing is on two videos:

               Video of 1st Hearing on Court 'Ethics' Corruption
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