Thursday, June 16, 2011

NACDL's 1st Annual West Coast White Collar Conference, “Turning The Tables On The Government” – “Finding the Line: Ethical Considerations When Contacting and Interviewing Witnesses,” Thursday, June 16, 2011

Guest Blogger: Darin Thompson, Assistant Federal Public Defender, Office of the Federal Public Defender (Cleveland,OH)

Day One of the seminar concluded with a panel discussion of the various ethical pitfalls surrounding the interviewing of witnesses. Patrick Robbins moderated the discussion. The panel included Blair G. Brown, David Fechheimer, Nina J. Ginsberg, Marc S. Harris, and Steven Singer.

The panel first discussed hypotheticals involving a lawyer who first represents a company (through an audit committee) under investigation.  Ms. Ginsberg pointed out the first potential conflict that lawyers face when interviewing employee witnesses under these circumstances is that the witness’s interests may be adverse to the company client. She further noted that such adverse interests would preclude dual representation as well. She discussed the burdens the model rules place upon lawyers interviewing witnesses. Model Rule 4.3 requires an explanation of the lawyer’s role, prior to interviewing, where the witness may be confused regarding the lawyer’s role, and that this explanation approaches that required by Miranda warnings. As Mr. Brown noted, these warnings are in the interest of the lawyer as well, as they will protect the company and the lawyer from subsequent motion, though he doubted that the warnings ever approach the standard of Miranda. The panel agreed that the overriding goal of representing the company by ferreting out information, and convincing the government that the company is being aggressive in its investigation, runs directly contrary to strong warnings. Marc Harris noted that it was common to demand cooperation from employee witnesses, upon threat of termination.

The panel discussed the problems presented by the question: “Should I get a lawyer?” Everyone agreed that the question required the lawyer to walk a fine line. The lawyer should not give the witness legal advice by opining whether a lawyer is a good idea, but must accurately answer that the witness has the option to get a lawyer.

The next hypothetical involved a lawyer advising an AUSA that he represents all current employees of the corporation and the current and former CFO and CEO, but the AUSA sends the agents to interview the employees. Mr. Brown started his response by cautioning against such blanket assertions of representation unless the facts truly warrant it. He continued by noting that the state ethics rules may provide the best barrier to this kind of conduct.  The panel agreed, with Mr. Singer noted that many state ethics rules specifically include corporate employees as represented parties.

Marc Harris noted that another fine line exists when advising all employees of a company that they need not talk to agents, and that flatly advising against it may constitute obstruction of justice. Ms. Ginsberg further cautioned that it created an impression on the part of the employees that they are being represented. Mr. Brown noted that Model Rule 8.4 allows a lawyer to advise a client’s employee not to talk to an adverse party.

One questioner noted that the trend toward “hyper-co-operativity” on the part of companies has only aggravated the problems faced by the employees on the other side of the hypotheticals discussed.
Another questioner asked about government pressure to not interview government witnesses. Mr. Singer commented that such efforts to intimidate the defense must not be allowed to succeed, and discussed taking steps to protect oneself during those scenarios, i.e., having multiple people present for any interviews.

The final hypothetical involved a grand jury witness taking the 5th Amendment privilege to protect another individual and advising the lawyer he was doing so. Mr. Harris indicated that this is not problematic, but, advising a witness to do so might constitute obstruction of justice, especially if that advice was motivated by a desire for financial gain by securing further employment by the corporation at issue.

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Conferences, Defense Counsel, Investigations, Legal Ethics | Permalink

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