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Lee Helfrich has little tolerance for lawyers who commit ethics violations, especially those who lie. And as a member of the D.C. Bar’s Board on Professional Responsibility, she’s tough when it comes to discipline. It’s a hard-nosed approach that’s elicited respect from many of her colleagues, particularly from the bar counsel attorneys responsible for prosecuting rogue lawyers. But now Helfrich believes her stern stance might have led to her being blackballed from the board. On May 8 the D.C. Bar’s Board of Governors submitted a list of nominees to the D.C. Court of Appeals for three soon-to-be-vacant positions on the disciplinary board. One of those seats currently belongs to Helfrich, who until recently assumed she would serve a second term; incumbents who wish to continue serving typically are renominated and confirmed for a second and final term. In fact, during the past 10 years every sitting member who wanted to remain on the board has at least been renominated. But not this time. Martin Baach, whose voice as board chairman is influential in the nomination process, refused to recommend Helfrich for renomination. A civil litigator specializing in energy policy and a partner at Lobel, Novins & Lamont, Helfrich ultimately was left off the list of nominees forwarded to the court. Critics say that Baach’s snub was an unprecedented move, one that has sparked a public controversy within the typically low-key D.C. Bar. In the aftermath of his decision, almost a dozen bar counsel lawyers sent e-mails of support to Helfrich, while other advocates wrote letters on her behalf to bar leaders. The dispute has raised questions about whether a difference of opinion over how to discipline miscreant attorneys might be at the heart of Baach’s move to shut out Helfrich. “I believe that Marty’s decision has less to do with productivity and much more to do with disagreements on perspectives and approach,” Helfrich wrote in an April 13 letter to fellow board members. “I think it’s safe to say that Marty and I often have different opinions and are people of different character.” In an effort to keep her seat, Helfrich enlisted the help of Michael Frisch, who served as senior assistant bar counsel for more than 15 years and who has harsh words for what he calls Baach’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering. “He has an agenda and I think that includes making it hard on bar counsel to come down on lawyers, particularly big law firms, and Lee gets in the way of that,” says Frisch, now a law professor and ethics counselor at Georgetown University Law Center. But Baach, who practices complex insurance law as a partner at Baach Robinson & Lewis, denies that his decision was motivated by divergent views or a clash of personalities. “Poppycock. That collection of charges is poppycock,” says Baach, who refused to discuss his reasons for opposing Helfrich. “Because this is a personnel matter, I am going to respectfully decline to make a public comment.” Although Baach declined to comment further, board Vice Chairman Roger Klein defends the decision. “The actions of the board leadership in this matter were motivated solely by a desire to improve the ability of the board to fulfill its responsibilities to the public, the court, and the bar,” says Klein, a partner at Howrey. “I am confident that the decision not to support the reappointment of Lee Helfrich to a second term was the right decision.” WEINER ROASTS AND COCKTAIL PARTIES The board, the D.C. Bar’s top disciplinary body, hears cases against lawyers accused of misconduct and recommends sanctions. The volunteer position is time-consuming, with members spending up to 250 hours a year attending meetings and writing opinions that are often reviewed by the Court of Appeals. Before Helfrich was asked to join the board in 2004 to finish the term of another member who moved, she spent four years serving on one of the board’s hearing committees. It was the second time she had been nominated for a coveted spot on the nine-member board. “To my knowledge, other than Marty and maybe Roger, I had more responsibility than anybody else,” says Helfrich. During her term, Helfrich says, she agreed to take on extra work, including handling all board matters involving lawyers in need of substance abuse treatment and other forms of counseling. Helfrich admits that on two occasions she was late submitting decisions, but she believes her fellow board members understood because her mother was ill at the time. Even on the typically collegial board, the differences between Baach and Helfrich were obvious. “He’s cocktail parties, and I’m backyard weenie roast. I wouldn’t invite him to my weenie roast, and he wouldn’t invite me to the cocktail party,” Helfrich says during an interview inside her rather unorthodox K Street office. At the start of the meeting, Helfrich quickly stubs out a Marlboro Light cigarette and jumps up from behind a desk piled high with papers to turn off the stereo, which is blaring a Nine Inch Nails CD borrowed from her son. Helfrich acknowledges that sometimes she comes off as “irreverent and mouthy” and that Baach is quite the opposite. But, she adds, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to work together on the board. But some former and current colleagues defend Baach’s style, saying he’s easy to work with, dedicated, and a good leader. Paul Knight, an attorney with O’Connor & Hannan and a former board member, praises Baach, calling him a careful listener who thinks before he speaks. He says that Baach is always respectful — sometimes “overly respectful.” Several current board members contacted for this article either did not return phone calls or declined to comment on any matters related to the board. CLASHING OVER CASES Klein says accusations that the decision was based on conflicting personalities or philosophical differences are baseless. But the board’s record shows that, at times, Helfrich and Baach were clearly at odds when it came to discipline. One such disagreement over sanctions is evident in the case of Salvatore Scanio. The victim of a car accident, Scanio was accused of making false representations about his income when he tried to pursue an insurance claim. Scanio told a representative from the other driver’s insurance company that he had lost income and his bonus was decreased after the accident because he could not meet his billable-hours requirement. The claim was false, and when his firm, Spriggs & Hollingsworth, found out about the misrepresentations he was fired. Scanio also lied to his firm in an effort to save his job. In a July 2005 opinion written by Baach, the board found that Scanio “engaged in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit and/or misrepresentation.” But the board only recommended that Scanio be publicly censured because the majority believed he had simply engaged in “hard bargaining” tactics with the insurance company. In a separate opinion, however, Helfrich wrote that she did not believe a censure was a severe enough punishment and instead recommended a 60-day suspension. Scanio ultimately received a public censure. In another case handled by the board, Helfrich argued that Francisco Laguna, a lawyer with the now-defunct Ristau & Abbell who had been pleaded guilty in 1995 of conspiracy to import cocaine and obstruction of justice, should be permanently disbarred. After serving time in prison, Laguna sought reinstatement to the bar in 2004. Baach and several other board members agreed that he was not “presently fit to practice law,” but they did not rule out future reinstatement. BLOCKED BY THE BAR It was March 20 when Helfrich first learned that her days on the board were numbered. That day, she accepted a lunch invitation from Klein, who she assumed wanted to discuss board business. But as the two casually chatted over their meals at D.C. Coast, Klein disclosed the real reason for their lunch — to convey Baach’s intentions to prevent her from serving a second term. The only reason cited, Helfrich says, was that she was “delaying the progress of the board.” Helfrich was shocked, she recalls, and her eyes swelled with tears. She claims that Klein told her this was not a matter that would be reconsidered, and she believed there was nothing more she could do. “You are one of the best, if not the best, writers on the board . . . you appear to be one of the board’s most productive members,” Julia Porter, senior assistant bar counsel, wrote in an e-mail to Helfrich. D.C. Bar Counsel Gene Shipp also sent Helfrich an e-mail, saying, “I am so sorry to hear of this decision.” Shipp would not discuss the controversy because his office regularly appears before the board. In addition, a legal reform group known as HALT sent a letter to D.C. Bar President John Cruden supporting Helfrich and expressing concerns about the “possible retaliation against a BPR member for expressing views that differ from those of the chair.” Frisch urged Helfrich to submit her name for consideration directly to the D.C. Bar. She did so, and, ultimately, her name was included on the Board of Governors ballot. The board has since forwarded nine names for consideration by the Court of Appeals, and Helfrich was not one of them. The Board of Governors reviews board candidates who are recommended by a screening committee and ultimately makes recommendations to the court. According to Katherine Mazzaferri, the executive director of the bar, the screening committee seeks input on prospective nominees from board leaders Baach and Klein and board staff. Elizabeth Branda, executive attorney for the board, declined to discuss the issues surrounding the nominations. This year, Baach and Klein recommended 11 people for the three vacancies, including renominating current member Shirley Williams, an attorney at the AARP’s Legal Counsel for the Elderly, for a second term. Helfrich was the only candidate on the list that Baach and Klein did not endorse. Although the Board of Governors did not forward Helfrich’s name, Frisch sent a letter to the Court of Appeals on May 11 asking that she be considered even without a formal nomination, which he admits is a long shot. The court will make its final selections before the new term begins on Aug. 1. “I’d love to spend another three years on the board,” says Helfrich, “and in my personal view I think I’ve done a good job.”
Bethany Broida can be contacted at [email protected]. Sarah Kelley can be contacted at [email protected].

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