Woman bound for prison places blame on attorney

Debbie Martinez has until 5 p.m. today to surrender to federal authorities.

But that hasn't stopped her from trying to persuade a judge to free her from a 30-month sentence in a fraud case.

Armed with a new lawyer, Martinez last week filed a motion that raises questions about her legal representation during her 2008 trial. Those papers include a sworn declaration that her trial attorney called "absolute perjury."

"It's a complete piece of fiction," Las Vegas attorney Louis Palazzo said.

In the motion, Martinez asks U.S. District Judge Kent Dawson to set aside her sentence because she was denied "effective assistance of counsel." She contends Palazzo had a conflict of interest because he jointly represented her and her then-husband, Dr. Stephen Seldon.

In 2007, the couple were accused of defrauding patients by treating them with an unapproved substitute for the more expensive anti-wrinkle drug Botox. Martinez worked in her husband's office.

A jury convicted them of 14 counts of mail fraud and one count of adulterating a drug while held for sale. Seldon was sentenced to 46 months in prison and lost his medical license.

The couple divorced in June 2009, the same month Martinez reported to prison, leaving behind her three teenage children from a previous marriage.

Nine months later, U.S. District Judge Kent Dawson made the unusual decision to release Martinez and Seldon pending appeal. But the appeal failed, and Dawson ordered Martinez back to the Federal Correctional Institution in Waseca, Minn. Seldon is in prison in California.

Palazzo said he understands Martinez's desperation, "but it's not appropriate to use me as some sacrificial lamb to attempt to achieve her objective of staying out of prison."

Las Vegas attorney Lisa Rasmussen recently began representing Martinez and prepared the motion to set aside her sentence. Federal prosecutors responded by filing a sealed motion to strike or seal Martinez's motion.

According to the court papers, Palazzo was local counsel for Seldon's trial attorney, Ronald Richards of Beverly Hills, Calif., which "compromised the undivided loyalty" Palazzo owed to Martinez.

Martinez "was not allowed to independently attempt to negotiate her case, as the concern was that she could have evidence that would negatively impact the codefendant, her husband at the time," Rasmussen wrote. "She was further advised by both (lawyers)... not to testify."

Palazzo said his designation as Richards' local counsel was a formality; his "complete allegiance" was to Martinez.

"In over 20 years of practice, I've never had anyone make a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel," he said.

In her declaration, Martinez said she told Palazzo early on that Seldon was abusive and that she "wanted to be as far away from Dr. Seldon as possible."

Palazzo "told me not to divorce him, but to stay together and act like we were in a good marriage," Martinez wrote. "During the trial, I could not even wear the wedding ring, because Mr. Palazzo demanded that I give it to him as part of the fees."

On Thursday, Palazzo said the defendants "wanted to project a unified front." He also said Martinez planned to sell her ring, which he accepted as partial payment. In a prior motion for a new trial, defense attorneys contended jurors improperly focused on the couple's lack of wedding rings.

According to Martinez's recent declaration, Palazzo and Richards told her not to turn against her husband.

"It was clear to me that the strategy was a joint one, and that my desires to testify against him, to attempt to negotiate my case and cooperate against him were not part of the joint strategy," she wrote.

She also alleges that Seldon furnished Palazzo with prescription pain medication.

Palazzo said he did accept a prescription for the sleep aid Ambien, but "that was all I received from Dr. Seldon."

He said Martinez "had nothing to offer" for plea negotiations, and he advised her not to testify because prosecutors "would just have a field day with her."

"It ultimately would have been her decision to testify or not," he said.

Martinez also contends Richards once used cocaine in front of her, groped her and sent her "sexual text messages."

"The joint representation was so open, cavalier and uninhibited that Ron Richards ... felt at ease hitting on (Martinez) and snorting cocaine in front of her," Rasmussen wrote.

Rasmussen also argues Palazzo had a patient-doctor relationship with Seldon -- further proof of joint representation.

In a telephone interview Wednesday, Richards said Martinez's declaration "has rampant perjury." He said her uncorroborated allegations come "from someone who's scared and desperate."

"This type of motion is filed after a defendant loses their appeal, and the reason why it is so sick and twisted is I wasn't her lawyer," Richards said.

"Simply defaming me doesn't help her on her ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim."

Richards said he has dozens of e-mails from Martinez praising his office's work, and that Palazzo, a longtime friend, "did a great job" defending Martinez.

"It's very common for someone that is legally unsophisticated to fabricate issues with their attorney because they think it is a get-out-of-jail-free card," Richards said. "This was her last-ditch attempt to try to prevent her imminent incarceration."

Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at cgeer@reviewjournal.com or 702-384-8710.