Sunday, June 29, 2008

A Family Affair

An Illinois hearing board has recommended a two-year suspension of an attorney for misconduct that included aiding in the unauthorized practice of his wife, who had earlier been disbarred. The unauthorized practice involved the representation of a Skokie police sergeant who had been named in a television news report as a person with possible involvement in the murder of an heiress to the Brach candy fortune. The rather interesting particulars:

Reiter [the police sergeant] contacted Respondent and discussed the news report, and his contact with the State’s Attorney’s office. Reiter had known Respondent for some time prior to this date. Within a few days, Respondent advised Reiter not to submit to a polygraph test. He also told Reiter that if he returned to the United States, he could be jailed under the Patriot Act and not allowed bail. Respondent agreed to determine whether Reiter was under investigation in the Brach case, and requested that Reiter pay him a $5,000 retainer. On April 9, 2005, Gary Reiter, Reiter’s brother, gave Respondent a check in the amount of $5,000.

Subsequently, Respondent telephoned Reiter and advised him that he would be coming to Puerto Vallarta to discuss the matter because it was not safe to discuss it over the telephone. Respondent also told Reiter that Jannice [the disbarred spouse] would accompany him. Reiter knew Jannice from a friendship he had with her parents. On April 14, 2005, Respondent and Jannice arrived in Puerto Vallarta. Reiter picked them up at the airport, and with Jannice present, Respondent discussed the matter with Reiter. Sometime between April 14, and 18, 2005, Respondent and Jannice advised Reiter and Reiter’s wife, Connie, that Jannice was a criminal attorney and would be assisting Respondent in the representation of Reiter. At the time he made these statements, Respondent knew that Jannice had been disbarred and was no longer licensed to practice law. At no time did Respondent advise Reiter of these facts.

Between April 14 and 18, 2005, Respondent and Jannice met with Reiter and Connie on at least three occasions to discuss the Brach case, including Reiter’s knowledge of the case, the possibility of an investigation of Reiter by law enforcement officials, and the possibility of filing a lawsuit against the reporter and television station that made the report about Reiter. They also discussed the possibility of selling the story of Reiter’s claimed innocence to certain television media outlets.

On April 17, 2005, Respondent gave Reiter a retainer agreement which provided that Respondent would serve as personal counsel to Reiter and provide all necessary advice and counsel. Additionally, the agreement stated that full compensation would be determined and agreed upon by Respondent and Reiter, and did not include an hourly fee schedule or any other means of determining how Respondent’s fee would be calculated. At the same time, Respondent gave Reiter a second document entitled "Compensation Agreement" which was signed by Reiter and Jannice. This document provided that "any funds which would be realized from any source from the sale of Lee Reiter’s story of his innocence in regard to the Helen Brach murder shall be divided equally between Jannice Whelan and Lee Reiter." On April 18, 2005, Respondent and Jannice left Puerto Vallarta.

Between April 25, 2005, and June 20, 2005, Jannice sent numerous e-mails to Reiter in which she requested information regarding the Brach case, discussed testimony of previous witnesses and defendants, discussed the news report naming Reiter, and provided legal advice to Reiter regarding the Brach case and his potential civil claim against the reporter and television station. Sometime after returning from Mexico, Respondent advised Reiter that Reiter should place his Skokie residence into a land trust to protect it from any civil claim which might be filed against him. On May 14, 2005, Jannice sent an e-mail to Reiter stating, among other things, "I am finished with the lawsuit against Channel 7 and Goudie. We [are] asking for 2 million in damages. The grounds are slander, libel, defamation of character, invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress." On May 16, 2005, Jannice sent Reiter an e-mail suggesting how information could be obtained regarding the alleged criminal investigation by filing the civil lawsuit. She also stated, "we have to do this now because there is a one year statute of limitations from the publishing of the 1st defamatory publication . . . let me know ASAP so I can email the completed lawsuit to you before it is filed."

Sometime before June 15, 2005, Respondent advised Reiter that the legal fees and costs to put Reiter’s Skokie residence into a land trust would be $900. Steve Reiter, Reiter’s son, provided Jannice with the deed and other documents requested by Respondent and Jannice to establish the trust. On June 15, 2005, Respondent e-mailed the land trust documents to Reiter for his signature. Also on that date, Steve gave Jannice a check in the amount of $900, made payable to Jannice, for the legal fees involving the land trust. On June 16, 2005, Jannice, or someone at her direction, deposited the $900 check into the bank account of Michael Whelan. Michael Whelan is Respondent and Jannice’s disabled, minor son. At no time did Respondent or Jannice have authority to use the proceeds of the check for their business or personal purposes.

During a trip to Mexico in June 2005, Gary, Reiter’s brother, obtained the original signed land trust documents from Reiter. Subsequently, Steve gave the documents to Respondent. Reiter’s signature was not notarized, and Respondent advised him that Jannice was applying for a notary, and would notarize his signature.

On June 20, 2005, Jannice sent Reiter an e-mail requesting $1,920 to obtain copies of law enforcement reports relating to the Brach case. On June 21, 2005, Steve issued Reiter’s check in that amount made payable to Jannice. Also on that date, Jannice or someone at her direction, deposited the check into Michael’s bank account. At no time did Respondent or Jannice have the authority to use the proceeds from the check for their business or personal expenses. As of June 27, 2005, prior to any payment for costs on behalf of Reiter, Michael’s bank account was overdrawn by $839.69. Accordingly, Respondent and Jannice had used the $900 and $1,920 given to them by Reiter for their business or personal expenses.

On July 29, 2005, Steve received a telephone call from Jannice advising him that she had located two unaired videotapes of a news report involving Reiter, and would need $1,000 for costs to obtain them. She also stated that the tapes would be vital to the civil action against the reporter and television station. Later that day, Respondent met with Connie and Steve at Reiter’s Skokie home, and obtained a check from Steve in the amount of $1,000 made payable to Respondent. He told Steve that the check would be used to obtain the tapes. He also advised Steve and Connie that Jannice was prepared to file the civil action, but he was "holding things up" because he had a "gut feeling" that there were a few more pieces of evidence that they could obtain before filing the lawsuit. On July 30, 2005, Respondent cashed the check, and used the money for business and personal expenses. Respondent had no authority to use the money for those purposes. Respondent knew or should have known of Jannice’s conduct in the case, and that he was aiding her in the unauthorized practice of law.

Between April 8, 2005, and July 29, 2005, Reiter or someone on his behalf, paid Respondent and Jannice approximately $28,000 for legal fees, costs, documents and tapes. At no time did Respondent provide Reiter with any evidence establishing whether he was formally under investigation by state or federal law enforcement authorities. At no time was Reiter indicted by state or federal officials in relation to the Brach case.

(Mike Frisch)

Bar Discipline & Process | Permalink

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