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The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has vacated a witness-tampering conviction on the grounds that the defense lawyer may have been conflicted through his apparent law partner. In 2001, James Ventry was facing charges that he participated in a 1996 attempted bank robbery. He had previously discussed his role in the robbery with his then-fiancee, Christine Janik, who recounted what he had told her in response to questioning by an FBI agent. In a subsequent e-mail, Ventry told Janik that he “spoke to a lawyer last night and they said that if you made that statement under deress [sic] that they can not hold you to that and that’s all you have to do is call … the prosecutor and tell him the statement was made under deress [sic] and that it is not true and that is what you will say if they make you testife [sic] in front of a Grand Jury.” The e-mail led to Ventry’s being charged with witness tampering, the only charge on which he was ultimately convicted. He was defended at trial by attorney Anthony J. Lana of Buffalo, N.Y., though the lawyer who gave Ventry the advice he summarized in his e-mail to Janik was Thomas J. Eoannou. In appealing his conviction, Ventry claimed Lana gave ineffective counsel because he was law partners with Eoannou, whose improper advice led to the witness-tampering charge. The Western District trial court had accepted Lana’s explanation that he only rented office space from Eoannou and there was no partnership relationship between the two, but the 2nd Circuit panel of Judges Jose Cabranes, Richard Wesley and P. Kevin Castel disagreed in Ventry v. United States, 06-cr-3104. Writing for the court, Wesley noted that letters submitted to the court regularly bore the letterhead of a firm called “Eoannou, Lana & D’Amico.” Likewise, the firm has made numerous appearances in the Western District and elsewhere in the circuit. The judge also pointed out that Ventry only ended up speaking to Eoannou about Janik’s testimony because he was trying to reach Lana, and the two lawyers shared an office as well as a phone. The panel noted that Eoannou’s testimony would not have been barred by ethical rules and might not have benefited Ventry because ignorance of the law is not a defense. But the court said the two lawyers’ vagueness about their professional relationship raised “grave conflict concerns.” Wesley noted that Lana and Eoannou’s alleged misrepresentations concerning their partnership in a law firm could subject them to discipline for violating ethical rules. On the other hand, if they are in a true partnership, their representations otherwise to the court could subject them to judicial sanction. The judge said it was possible Lana feared putting Eoannou on the stand to face government cross-examination about the existence or nonexistence of the Eoannou Lana firm. “Calling Eoannou as a defense witness would have put Eoannou and Lana between the proverbial ‘rock and a hard place,’” Wesley wrote. “However, by not calling Eoannou to the witness stand, Lana gave up potentially beneficial testimony for his client. Lana, in short, may have been conflicted.” The court ordered Ventry’s sentence vacated and the case remanded for an evidentiary hearing on the nature of the professional relationship between Lana and Eoannou. “The district court should then consider whether any aspect of that professional relationship, including the possible desire to avoid scrutiny of it, may have influenced Lana’s decision to not call Eoannou as a witness at Ventry’s trial,” the circuit panel concluded. Ventry was represented by Eleanor J. Piel in New York. Monica J. Richard, a Western District Assistant U.S. Attorney, appeared for the government.

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