Arent Fox partner Joseph Price exuded confidence while arguing in federal courts across the country or negotiating settlements on behalf of clients such as AOL and Mars.
In fact, many of the lawyers who had a brush with Price over the past two years had no idea that the 37-year-old intellectual property litigator was the target of federal prosecutors probing the 2006 death of D.C. lawyer Robert Wone. Prosecutors say Wone, a former Covington & Burling associate, was drugged, sexually assaulted, and stabbed to death in Price's Dupont Circle row house.
Last week, Price, his domestic partner Victor Zaborsky, and their close friend Dylan Ward were indicted on an obstruction-of-justice charge for allegedly covering up the Wone murder and hindering the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department's investigation.
According to a D.C. police affidavit, Price, Zaborsky and Ward, who were in a sexual relationship together, delayed reporting Wone's death to police, altered the crime scene, and lied to investigators about "the true circumstances" of the murder.
As of Friday, no murder charges had been filed, but last week Assistant U.S. Attorney Glenn Kirschner told a D.C. Superior Court magistrate judge that the government planned to file a superseding indictment charging the three men with conspiracy. The obstruction charge carries a minimum mandatory three-year term and up to 30 years in prison.
The criminal charge against Price stunned lawyers who had faced off against him in civil cases and knew the young lawyer as a smart opponent.
"This is absolutely shocking. This is straight out of left field," says Gammon & Grange director Timothy Obitts, who was opposing counsel in a trademark dispute this year involving AOL, which Price represented. "Joe's a man of integrity -- completely aboveboard."
Arent Fox management put Price on administrative leave effective Oct. 31, when Ward was arrested at Price's home near Miami. The firm also removed Price's biography from its Web site and directed e-mails sent to Price's Arent Fox address to other lawyers in the firm.
Arent Fox spokesman Steve Harras declined to comment on the criminal case, calling it "inappropriate" because the matter is pending. He would not say whether the firm is still paying Price a salary.
"All of Joe's clients have been put on with other attorneys who are familiar with the cases. It's not a one-man show," Harras says. "There's been no disruption in client services. The clients are being well serviced."
Price, an Arent Fox partner since 2006, made his first court appearance Thursday, standing in leg shackles and a dark suit with his hands clasped behind his back. He showed little emotion.
Wone's relatives, including his widow Kathy, were in court with Covington & Burling partner Benjamin Razi. (Covington partner Eric Holder Jr., who was recently named as President-elect Barack Obama's top pick for attorney general, has been representing the Wone family but did not attend the hearing.)
The Wone supporters sat on the opposite side of the room from where Price's friends had gathered. Among Price's group was Zaborsky, who was indicted but had not yet been arrested. Nearly all of the Thursday hearing took place at the bench of Magistrate Judge Diana Epps, who activated an electronic "husher" to block the audience from hearing the discussion. Later, Superior Court officials released a transcript from the lengthy bench conference that showed much of the talk centered on whether Price was a flight risk and whether the government could seek a $100,000 bond.
According to the transcript, Kirschner called Price a "man of means" and said that Price and Zaborsky, a 42-year-old former marketing manager with the International Dairy Foods Association, were possibly planning to flee to Florida. "He's a salary-drawing partner at Arent Fox and owns considerable real estate holdings in the metropolitan area and in Florida," Kirschner said.
Price's lawyer, Bernard Grimm of Cozen O'Connor, denied Price was running anywhere. "He's solidified in this jurisdiction. He has no place to go," Grimm said. Grimm also told Epps that his client didn't have much money, saying Price has spent more than $180,000 on legal expenses.
The hearing ended with Epps granting the government's request for $100,000 in bail.
The following day, Price -- and also Zaborsky -- appeared before Judge Frederick Weisberg to plead not guilty. Weisberg quickly decided that both men would be released from custody, but must wear electronic ankle bracelets, abide by a curfew, and submit to weekly drug tests. The $100,000 bail decision from Epps was barely mentioned. Grimm said he may challenge the restrictions.
Ward, 38, is expected to appear in D.C. Superior Court this week. Ward is represented by David Schertler of Schertler & Onorato. Thomas Connolly of Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis represents Zaborsky.
Price recently created a legal defense fund, which is being managed by Carol McGee, an Alston & Bird partner and a former official at the Securities and Exchange Commission. McGee declined to comment.
Price also sent an e-mail to friends Nov. 13 in which he said, according to the Washington Blade: "Our attorneys estimate that the cost of a trial, which will necessarily involve a number of experts, will run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. We have no choice but to sell and liquidate every asset in order to pay this staggering sum as our very freedom hangs in the balance." According to prosecutors, Price sold the house where Wone was killed for nearly $1.5 million this summer.
The three men, who were at the Dupont Circle house the night Wone was murdered in August 2006, claim an intruder broke in and killed Wone, the 32-year-old general counsel at Radio Free Asia. Police don't buy that theory, saying there is no evidence of a break-in. Investigators say "there exists overwhelming evidence, far in excess of probable cause," that Price, Zaborsky and Ward obstructed justice by "altering and orchestrating the crime scene, planting evidence, delaying the reporting of the murder to the authorities, and lying to the police about the true circumstances of the murder."
For the Wone family and their lawyers, there are still more questions than answers in the two years since the homicide.
"The Wone family, along with the large community of Robert's friends and colleagues, are pained greatly by the facts supporting today's indictments. Robert was a great man who did not deserve this," Razi said in an interview Thursday. "Although deeply upset, the Wone family is more resolved than ever to do everything in its power, including through counsel, to ensure that all persons responsible for Robert's murder, and the cover-up of his murder, are brought to justice."
Price has lived in the District for more than a decade, joining Arent Fox in 1998 after graduating from the University of Virginia School of Law and clerking for Judge Norman Moon of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia. Price has a degree in public policy from the College of William & Mary, and he is a past president of the school's Gay and Lesbian Alumni Association.
Price's affiliation with Equality Virginia, a gay rights advocacy group, ended in January 2007, says the group's chairman, Mark Board. Price was general counsel for the organization between 2002 and 2006.
Arent Fox firmwide managing partner William Charyk did not return phone calls and e-mails seeking comment. The firm's litigation co-chairman, Michael Stevens, also did not return calls and e-mails. Several Arent Fox partners who have worked with Price in recent years in intellectual property litigation declined to comment or did not return messages.
An automated e-mail from Price's Arent Fox account states: "Joe Price is on leave of absence and is not responding to e-mail messages. If you are writing Mr. Price about a pending legal matter, please contact any of the other Arent Fox attorneys working on the matter." The automated message includes Price's personal e-mail address. A message sent to the address was not immediately returned.
Throughout the two-year criminal investigation, Price continued to represent clients in trademark and copyright disputes, arguing cases in several federal district courts. In addition, Price often represented clients at the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, according to his Arent Fox biography.
In late October, just days before he went on leave, Price, who heads a significant pro bono practice, was the lead Arent Fox lawyer representing the Central Union Mission, a homeless shelter, in litigation that threatens the shelter's real estate deal with the District. Central Union's executive director, David Treadwell, did not return calls and e-mails seeking comment. Arent Fox litigation partner Timothy Brown filed a notice of appearance Thursday.
Earlier this year, Price represented Mars in a dispute with Robert Burck -- the "Naked Cowboy" who ambles around Manhattan in white underwear while playing a guitar. In February, Burck sued Mars in the Southern District of New York on a trademark claim, alleging that a dancing M&M candy character in white boots and a cowboy hat was a rip-off of Burck.
The case was settled and a federal judge entered a dismissal order this month. Kevin Mulhearn, part of the New York legal team representing Burck, calls Price a sharp litigator who played an active role in the settlement negotiations. The amount is confidential.
"He seemed a very diligent, capable lawyer," says Mulhearn, who was unaware of the Wone murder before Legal Times told him about it. "There was never any inkling that this was going on."
Price in June was representing AOL in a trademark lawsuit against a Florida company called NavQuest in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The case recently was settled. Solo practitioner Jonathan Schiffrin in Fairfax, Va., who represented NavQuest, says he was stunned to learn about the Price indictment.
"He was certainly professional and well-spoken," Schiffrin says. "For a litigator, that's high praise."