Even before he was arrested for fraud, investigated by grievance officials and asked a judge to keep secret his contacts with "a covert federal agent," Hartford attorney James W. Oliver was well known to state officials. His particular nemesis was former Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, with whom he clashed more than once in the first decade of this century.
In one notable case, Blumenthal filed a lawsuit against the New England Pellet Company, which pre-sold contracts for wood pellets to customers. When New England Pellet's distributor cut supplies of the pellets, which are burned to heat houses and other buildings, the company couldn't honor its contracts.
In another case handled by Oliver, Blumenthal came after a company called Sunrise Herbal, which was accused of continuing to mail products to customers even after they had canceled their contracts.
In both cases, the Connecticut Post reported, Blumenthal's office sued the companies for more than a million dollars in restitution and penalties, and spent years litigating the cases, only to settle for much lower amounts — $55,000 in the pellet case (which was used to provide restitution to customers) and $88,000 in the Sunrise Herbal case.
Oliver was something less than a gracious winner. He told a reporter in 2010 that the Attorney General's Office's dogged pursuit of consumer protection cases was an "abuse of power" that did nothing but put companies "out of business" and "polish the political image of Blumenthal."
"If you are a small business owner and he sues you for $70,000, and wants $1 million in penalties, life as you know it is over," Oliver told the Post. "Your bank accounts are seized. Liens are placed on property and assets. Even if you win, the state will appeal and you will wait another year. You are out of business. You are dead."
Now it's Oliver's tactics that are being questioned. The veteran commercial law, construction law and complex litigation lawyer has been arrested and charged with defrauding clients — namely the owners of New England Pellet, which reorganized after filing for bankruptcy in the wake of the Blumenthal investigation.
Specifically, Oliver is accused of advising the company's owners to use an accountant who, authorities say, falsely claimed to be a doctor, an internal auditor and a certified forensic examiner. Oliver encouraged his clients to hire her even though he knew she was lying about her qualifications, according to an arrest warrant.
Oliver is charged with third-degree larceny and accessory to third-degree larceny. The accountant, Cynthia Michaud, is charged with third-degree larceny, second-degree false statement and unauthorized use of the title "doctor."
Both were recently arraigned in Superior Court in Enfield. Both are free after posting $10,000 bail.
Oliver did not return two phone calls from the Law Tribune seeking comment. Neither did his attorney, Thomas E. Minogue, of Shelton.
The criminal charges aren't the only thing Oliver has to worry about. The Statewide Grievance Committee is also looking into his conduct, following a complaint filed by Stephen Zaczynski, one of the owners of New England Pellet. Zaczynski himself is not without blemishes on his police record. In 2009, the former state Correction Department lieutenant was accused of running the wood pellet business while he was collecting disability payments from his state job.
"There is a grievance pending against [Oliver]. We've had a hearing on it. We're waiting for a decision," said Karyl L. Carrasquilla, an assistant disciplinary counsel in the Office of the Chief Discplinary Counsel. "They made allegations Michaud and Oliver are in cahoots and trying to put the fraud forward."
The grievance allegations against Oliver are not the same as those in the criminal complaint. Zaczynski contends the attorney withdrew inappropriately from several cases he was handling for Zaczynski and his business partner. He also alleges that Oliver informed him that it was necessary to "pay off" a postal inspector to prevent further difficulties for the business.
The grievance hearing was held in June. The Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel recommended a presentment to the Superior Court, where a judge could suspend Oliver's license or issue other sanctions. "Because of the allegations made and the evidence presented, it's a serious matter," Carrasquilla said.
There is an unusual twist. In November 2012, Judge Trial Referee Richard Rittenband issued an order telling both Oliver (referred to as "the respondent") and grievance officials that they were not to mention in any documents or discussions "the name of a federal agent who may have been involved with the respondent."
According to the order, "the disclosure of the name or the identity of this undercover, covert federal agent, as alleged by the Respondent, is likely to put his/her life and career in danger as well as compromise the national security of the United States."
Rittenband said that the parties should refer to the agent as "Mr. X."
Carrasquilla said that Oliver was referring to Michaud, who told officials that she was not a covert agent and that she had never told Oliver any such thing. The whole issue arose, according to grievance officials, when Oliver said he could not fully defend himself against the grievance complaints without revealing a government agent's identity.
Carrasquilla said the judge's order was vacated once Michaud testified she was not an agent.
"It was not your usual grievance complaint," Carrasquilla said. "The allegations are very interesting. The hearing was very interesting."
'Sophisticated Business Clients'
State officials say that Oliver has no prior disciplinary history.
In fact, the Oliver Law Firm website paints a portrait of a small, but successful two-lawyer firm. "For over twenty years, we have successfully represented sophisticated business clients in negotiating complex transactions, prelitigation and litigation and trial in arbitration and in Connecticut and Massachusetts state and federal courts," the home page states.
Oliver's bio says he graduated from Boston College Law School in 1987 and once released an instructional CD called Conversations With A Shark. The Tower Records website says that on the CD, Oliver provides "a set of time tested rules for avoiding court and for winning in court, should that become necessary. Jim Oliver also explains how to define your relationship with your attorney on terms favorable to you."
The website also touts Oliver's participation in a half dozen cases that resulted in published decisions. In another section, clients offer endorsements. This praise came from Kenneth Kearns, the president of Cozmetica Inc.: "Although Mr. James Oliver faced attorneys in three states and was charged with the responsibility of preparing a very complex case involving companies across the U.S.A., he provided a brilliant and overpowering defense."
Additionally, the website contains a blog, which, though infrequently updated, contains links to a newspaper article and an opinion column that mention the New England Pellet case. Both mention Oliver's involvement and both hold Blumenthal in an unfavorable light.
Once the settlement with Blumenthal was reached, Oliver's involvement with New England Pellet was not finished. The company is being sued by its New Hampshire-based supplier, which claims that New England Pellet did not pay for about $400,000 worth of wood pellets. That case is pending in federal court.
Authorities said as part of that litigation, Oliver encouraged New England Pellet to hire Michaud. Zaczynski, the company co-owner, told authorities that it was during a deposition that he learned that Michaud was not a doctor and that she did not have the other advanced auditing and forensic credentials that she had claimed.
The New England Pellet co-owners claim that they were defrauded of more than $340,000, though police officially charged Michaud for billing $2,550 for "medical damage analysis." It's not clear what sort of analysis she allegedly performed.
Could it have been an honest mistake on Oliver's part? Authorities don't think so. They say Oliver knew all about Michaud's background. After all, according to the arrest warrant, Oliver represented Michaud in a 2009 case when she was fired from an accounting firm. The reason for her termination? She allegedly lied about her credentials.•