Prosecutors have noticed an “alarming” number of lawyers convicted of serious crimes in federal court in the past several years.
A total of 23 lawyers, mostly from Las Vegas, have been convicted since 2008, according to the Nevada U.S. attorney’s office.
Since 2011, the number of convictions have increased nearly five times over the previous three years, records show. There were four convictions between 2008 and 2010, but 19 between 2011 and this year. Eight attorneys either pleaded guilty or were convicted by a jury in 2013 alone.
“In the last several years, the number of lawyers charged with federal crimes has increased dramatically,” U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden says. “Although we cannot speculate as to the reason for the rise in numbers, we can say that it is embarrassing and sad when lawyers violate the very laws they have taken an oath to uphold.”
Bogden calls the growing rate of attorney prosecutions “alarming” in his 2013 annual report on the accomplishments of his office.
He isn’t alone in noticing the increase.
“There’s been a significant uptick,” says David Clark, the chief counsel for the State Bar of Nevada, which regulates lawyers. “It’s a combination of economic realities and the increased vigilance on the part of federal prosecutors to go after lawyers.”
Clark says attorneys have struggled in the failing economy just like everyone else and have been forced to look for other ways to make money, sometimes landing in legal and professional trouble.
Of the 23 convictions since 2008, a total of 19 involved financial crimes such as tax evasion, bank fraud and mortgage fraud, records show.
Bankruptcy attorney Randolph Goldberg pleaded guilty to tax evasion last year and is now serving a 1½-year sentence in federal prison. Defense lawyer and former prosecutor Paul Wommer, who was convicted by a jury of tax evasion last year, is serving a nearly 3½-year prison sentence. Both are temporarily suspended and can expect more disciplinary action from the State Bar when they get out of prison.
Four Las Vegas attorneys — the late David Amesbury, Jeanne Winkler, Barry Levinson and Brian Jones — pleaded guilty to fraud charges in the federal investigation into the massive takeover of Las Vegas-area homeowners associations. Amesbury killed himself weeks after he pleaded guilty, and the other three lawyers are cooperating with prosecutors and waiting to be sentenced.
Another attorney, Keith Gregory, is to stand trial in October in the HOA case, and one key target, attorney Nancy Quon, committed suicide before federal authorities could charge her.
Winkler was disbarred in 2011 for stealing money from her clients, and Levinson agreed to disbarment as part of the plea deal he struck with federal prosecutors earlier this year. He is currently suspended from practicing law.
Other well-known lawyers have run afoul of the law:
■ Harvey Whittemore, a onetime political power broker, was convicted last year of unlawfully funneling more than $133,000 to the campaign of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat. He was sentenced to two years in prison and must surrender in August. Whittemore is temporarily suspended from practicing law while the State Bar considers further action.
■ Noel Gage, who specialized in personal injury cases, pleaded guilty in 2010 to obstruction of justice in a federal investigation into an alleged fraud scheme involving a network of lawyers and physicians. He was sentenced to three years probation. Gage is off probation and his law license is temporarily suspended until the end of July. He must apply for reinstatement.
■ Lawrence Davidson, caught up in a political corruption probe a dozen years ago, pleaded guilty to mail fraud, money laundering and several other charges, including those related to his unlawful flight to Israel in 2006 to avoid standing trial. Davidson agreed to disbarment in 2005 after he was originally charged. He eventually returned to Las Vegas and was sentenced in 2012 to eight years in prison.
■ Gerry Zobrist, once a part-time Las Vegas justice of the peace, pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy to commit bank fraud and wire fraud in a multimillion-dollar scheme to use straw buyers to unlawfully purchase homes in the valley. He was sentenced to seven years in federal prison. His law license has been suspended pending further disciplinary action.
REASON FOR THE RISE
Thomas Pitaro, a respected criminal defense lawyer who has been practicing in Las Vegas for 40 years, says the stress of the legal profession likely has contributed to the rise in criminal prosecutions of attorneys.
“I think there are very few attorneys who steal for the hell of it,” Pitaro says. “It’s systematic of other problems — drugs, alcohol, gambling and living above their means.”
Pitaro also believes federal authorities are spending more time investigating white collar and financial crimes that have a higher probability of involving lawyers and other professionals.
Clark says his organization has stepped up its own vigilance of lawyers in recent years and has been working closely with law enforcement authorities.
“We’ve been sharing more information and developing more contacts with law enforcement,” he explains.
Clark points to the Levinson case as a prime example of the State Bar’s strong working relationship with police and federal authorities.
At one point, Las Vegas police, federal authorities and the State Bar all were working cases against Levinson at the same time, Clark says.
In his federal deal, Levinson not only pleaded guilty in the HOA fraud case, but he also pleaded guilty to tax evasion and embezzling more than $243,000 from his clients. His deal calls for him to receive no less than two years in prison. Any time behind bars he gets in state court on theft charges will run concurrently with his federal sentence.
Levinson’s willingness to agree to disbarment in his federal plea was a first for prosecutors and the State Bar. Goldberg last year agreed to a two-year suspension in his federal plea agreement.
“It shows the evolution of our cooperation with law enforcement authorities,” Clark says.
STATE BAR DISCIPLINE
Something else that is evolving is the State Bar’s approach to disciplining lawyers.
A Nevada Supreme Court rule says the State Bar can move to temporarily suspend a lawyer upon a “final judgment of conviction,” and the bar has waited over the years until a lawyer is sentenced. That’s when the federal courts, which see most of the criminal cases, recognize a final judgment of conviction.
But two criminal cases against lawyers, one in Clark County District Court and another in federal court, has Clark looking for temporary suspensions before sentencing.
The District Court case is against defense attorney Brian Bloomfield, who pleaded guilty in December to felony charges stemming from a fraud investigation into a sweeping courthouse counseling scheme. Bloomfield has continued to represent clients in court the past six months while waiting to be sentenced.
The federal case involves Brian Jones, who pleaded guilty in the HOA case more than two years ago and is also waiting to be sentenced. Jones has since moved to Utah and is not practicing law in Las Vegas, but his license remains active.
Last month Clark filed a petition with the state Supreme Court seeking a temporary suspension for Bloomfield while the State Bar prepares to file a complaint against him that could lead to his disbarment.
The State Bar counsel filed a similar petition last week to get Jones temporarily suspended.
Clark is hoping the Supreme Court will more clearly define the broad rule, which also allows the State Bar to seek a suspension after a guilty plea or jury conviction.
“In the past this hasn’t been so much of a problem because there hasn’t been a long disconnect between a guilty plea and a sentencing,” Clark recently said. “But lately, we’ve been seeing a greater delay.”
Contact Jeff German at email@example.com or 702-380-8135. Find him on Twitter: @JGermanRJ.