My 300th Post. The shady “Stormy” story gets shadier.

If you had told me back in March 2015 when I started this blog that my 300th blogpost would struggle with trying to decide which angle of a statement to The New York Times made by a personal attorney for the 45th President of the United States about paying $130,000 to a porn star to apparently buy silence regarding that porn star’s past affair with the President at a time that was within months of the President’s third wife giving birth to his fifth child would be worst legal ethics bit, then I … well, I don’t even know what I would have begun to have thought, much less said.

But this is the reality of the world in which we now live.  So, here we are.  Let’s get this over with.

You’ve certainly likely already reports from yesterday either The New York Times article itself, or the thoughts of other folks online about the story which are too numerous to try to link to at this point.  The very short version is Michael Cohen, a New York lawyer who has been the private, personal attorney of the current occupant of The White House and who was, in the recent past, something of an in-house attorney for the 45th President’s family corporate organization has now provided a statement to one of the largest newspapers in the nation — that he says echoes substantively what he has told the Federal Election Commission — that he personally paid $130,000 to a woman, who goes professionally by the name, Stormy Daniels, and was not reimbursed directly or indirectly by the current President’s campaign or his family corporate organization.

I am a lawyer – I may have mentioned that on one or more occasions.  For anyone who might be reading this and wondering what it is like to be a lawyer, Mr. Cohen’s experience as he describes it is definitely not what lawyers do.  The best of our profession often times think of ourselves as, and even describe ourselves, as problem solvers.  But we traditionally are not allowed to solve problems for people simply by throwing our own money at the problem.  That aspect is just one of the ways in which this incident, and how the statement describes it, raises a whole host of immediate, problematic ethics issues for discussion.

Those include:

(a) If Cohen’s statement about the transaction is true, it might have been a violation of New York’s ethics rules on business transactions with clients or not providing financial assistance to a client regarding litigation or certainly otherwise a scenario that creates a serious, personal interest conflict of interest for the attorney.  (b) The making of the statement itself is not something a lawyer should likely be doing unless he’s been instructed to by the client because it just made things worse for the lawyer’s client because the porn star who had been worried she was still under an NDA now believes she is free to speak out about the affair and actually confirm other media reports rather than being coy about the whole situation. (c) It also is quite likely that Cohen’s version of the events is probably not 100% the truth, key details have been omitted, and it could very well, if nothing else, be a violation of a rule such as RPC 8.4(c).

Now, in trying to discuss such topics at length, I could repeat what other fine lawyers on the ground in New York and who are well versed in ethics have now already said in a story in The ABA Journal online about the likely violation of New York RPC 1.8(e), but I won’t.  You can read what they say at this link instead.  (Plus, I quite recently wrote about a somewhat similar kind of situation involving a much less crazy overall scenario and so it seems like it isn’t necessary to write more about the “doing a financial favor for a client” piece of the puzzle.)

I could also spend some time complaining about the fact that much of what I first read online posted by journalists about Cohen’s statement was how everybody kept claiming that Cohen had said he’d paid the money to Ms. Daniels “out of his own pocket,” which he never actually said apparently.  But, instead you can go read a good take on that aspect of the situation here.

I also could focus on the fact that, without respect to the shadiness of the whole transaction and how problematic that is for a lawyer to be near, the decision to give a statement to The New York Times appears likely to damage his client as Ms. Daniels is now signaling through the media that she can tell all because Cohen’s public statement confirming the payment is a breach of the NDA she signed.  But, there is already a better article about that development you can read here.

Instead, I want to point out my own opinion, given the way a certain someone is known to operate, about how this likely went down:

Cohen is likely telling the truth about paying with funds of his for which no one reimbursed him, but omitting the most salient detail.  He probably wasn’t “reimbursed” by anyone after making the payment because he was probably provided those funds, pretty much immediately in advance of the transaction, as some sort of bonus or even a “gift” with the tacit understanding about what he was expected to do with those funds — purchase Ms. Daniels’s silence.

So, under that theory, if Cohen’s conduct is unethical, then it is probably because it either is, or might very well be akin to, money laundering or money laundering in reverse. . . if that’s a thing.

Idaho why lawyers are so often tripped up on this.

I’m writing from Boise where tomorrow I’m delighted to have the chance to speak on legal ethics for the Idaho Prosecuting Attorneys Association.  (I’m also delighted that the weather is unseasonably warm at the moment.)  Last year I had the chance to do a similar presentation for the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference.  Prosecuting attorneys throughout the country are finding themselves more frequently in the cross-hairs of disciplinary proceedings.

But today’s post isn’t really about that, but it does help explain the selection process.  As I find myself drawn to write about a recent instance of discipline imposed on a private attorney in Idaho that involves behavior that I’ve counseled lawyers about so I know it happens to be relevant beyond just the Idaho Bar.

The case involves the issuance of a suspension order against Attorney Beckett issued at the end of January 2018, but for which the 28-day active suspension period will run during the month of February.  You can read the press release put out by Idaho State Bar Counsel here.

The underlying case was a personal injury lawsuit, and Beckett was able to get the case successfully settled for his client.  His client, though, wanted immediate access to parts of what would be forthcoming from the settlement.  Perhaps simply motivated by an effort to be accommodating, or more likely because of a failure to properly communicate with the client and manage expectations regarding how long such things take, Beckett agreed to provide two advances of the forthcoming settlement funds to the client out of his own money and from money belonging to a separate company Beckett owned.

As the press release explains, he didn’t do that in a way that was at all proper because she didn’t manage to keep the funds properly segregated to avoid commingling them with money in other accounts and also didn’t communicate to the client the available alternatives.  Despite the fact that, as the press release makes clear, Beckett didn’t charge any interest or fees for the transaction and that no other clients were harmed in any way, the conduct violated Rule 1.15 and 1.4 of the Idaho Rules and merited a 60-day suspension, with 28 days of active suspension, and a six-month probationary period.

What is interesting is that the press release makes no mention of Rule 1.8(a) governing business transactions with clients.  When I have had to counsel lawyers about inquiries from clients along these lines, that is the Rule most pertinent to the discussion for a path to actually doing what the client wants if the lawyer is insistent on providing an accommodation.

Idaho, like Tennessee, has a Rule 1.8(a) patterned after the ABA Model Rule.  Tennessee’s, for example, provides that a business transaction with a client – which is what a loan like what Beckett did would be — cannot happen unless

(1) the transaction and terms on which the lawyer acquires the interest are fair and reasonable to the client and are fully disclosed and transmitted in writing in a manner that can be reasonably understood by the client;

(2) the client is advised in writing of the desirability of seeking and is given a reasonable opportunity to seek the advice of independent legal counsel on the transaction; and

(3) the client gives informed consent, in a writing signed by the client, to the essential terms of the transaction and the lawyer’s role in the transaction, including whether the lawyer is representing the client in the transaction.

Now, working through that rule is not 100% of the battle altogether, because the risk still exists that a bar counsel would argue that other provisions in the same rule, RPC 1.8(e) and (i) in Tennessee for example, would still work to prohibit such a business transaction altogether if the case has been settled but no order of dismissal ending the litigation has been entered.

Those provisions provide:

(e) A lawyer shall not provide financial assistance to a client in connection with pending or contemplated litigation, except that:

(1) a lawyer may advance court costs and expenses of litigation, the repayment of which may be contingent on the outcome of the matter; and

(2) a lawyer representing an indigent client may pay court costs and expenses of litigation on behalf of the client.

and

(i) A lawyer shall not acquire a proprietary interest in the cause of action or subject matter of litigation the lawyer is conducting for a client, except that the lawyer may:

(1) acquire a lien authorized by law to secure the lawyer’s fee or expenses; and

(2) contract with a client for a reasonable contingent fee in a civil case.

RPC 1.8(i) has always struck me as a prohibition that can be drafted around in the transaction documents to sever any connection between the litigation and the loan, but (e) is trickier if the litigation, despite being settled is technically still “pending” at the time of the client’s inquiry.

An exception to “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” in Ohio

Lawyers who frequently represent other lawyers in disciplinary proceedings are well aware that the ethics rules in their state offer up an inherent 2-for-1 construction for bar prosecutors because states with versions of RPC 8.4(a) patterned on the Model Rules establish that a lawyer also violates RPC 8.4(a) by violating any other ethics rule.  That same rule also makes it an ethics violation for a lawyer to attempt to violate the ethics rules.

Unlike criminal law where people often find themselves in jail just for a criminal offense of attempting to commit a crime, situations where a lawyer ends up being disciplined merely for attempting to break a rule are rare.

The Supreme Court of Ohio issued a public reprimand against an Ohio lawyer for just such a thing yesterday.  The lawyer was ultimately hoodwinked out of $2,000 by a person posing as a personal injury client (including a fake limp and a bandaged arm).  Despite the fact that the swindler committed a crime and was ultimately sentenced to 8 months in prison, the fleeced lawyer ended up being disciplined as well.  Why?  Because the lawyer provided the $2,000 to the thief intending it to be an advance of living expenses.  The lawyer also entered into a contingent fee agreement to represent the person in pursuit of a lawsuit for the claimed injuries from an industrial accident.

RPC 1.8(e) in Ohio, as in Tennessee, is patterned upon the Model Rules, and prohibits lawyers from “provid[ing] financial assistance to a client in connection with pending or contemplated litigation,” unless the financial assistance involves advancing court costs or expenses of litigation.  Paragraph [10] of the Comment to that rule in Ohio, as is the case here in Tennessee, explains:

Lawyers may not subsidize lawsuits or administrative proceedings brought on behalf of their clients, including making or guaranteeing loans to their clients for living expenses, because to do so would encourage clients to pursue lawsuits that might not otherwise be brought and because such assistance gives lawyers too great a financial stake in the litigation.

So, because the lawyer thought he was dealing with a real client with a real case and provided money for a prohibited purpose — living expenses — it ultimately didn’t matter that the person was not really a client.  The lawyer’s own fastidiousness in terms of record keeping ultimately helped leave no doubt the reason for the financial transaction as the opinion explains that he had the person “sign a photocopy of seven $100 bills with the notation, ‘Temporary loan of $700.00 cash advanced 2/3/14…” and also gave the person a check for $1,300.

All of this came to light only after the lawyer, prompted by a telephone call from another person inquiring about hiring the lawyer in a personal injury matter made a report to local police.  (Presumably, the first guy put the word out that they had a live one in the lawyer and the caller was looking for the same deal.)

So, despite only getting fooled once, the Supreme Court of Ohio still publicly shamed the lawyer.

(P.S.  Readers should be proud of me for avoiding the temptation to load this post up with puns making use of the lawyer’s last name.)