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Something is bunk in the town of Cool. Mainly the feds, if you ask J. Tony Serra. First the FBI raided his clients’ med-pot business in a strip mall in the El Dorado County town in 2001. Then last year, the Sacramento U.S. attorney’s office indicted them. Now federal prosecutors are trying to throw Serra off the case, in which he represents wife and husband Marion Fry and Dale Schafer � a doctor and lawyer, respectively � against charges of manufacturing and conspiring to distribute pot. “We’ve got a hell of a defense, and now they’re trying to oust us,” Serra said Thursday. If he’s allowed to stay on the case, Serra plans to say his clients acted on the advice of counsel, which he said would be the first time this argument has ever been used against federal charges levied at medical-pot dealers. But prosecutors say a conflict should keep him from making that case. They argue that the attorneys with whom Serra shares his San Francisco office constitute a law firm � and that since a lawyer who used to work in Serra’s office had represented a witness cooperating against his clients, Serra should be disqualified. “They represented a witness, and now they want to turn around and cross-examine that person,” said Patty Pontello, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of California. The case is somewhat complicated by the fact that Serra heads to federal prison next week to begin serving a 10-month tax-evasion sentence. With that messy stage set, the conflict issue came to a head Monday, when U.S. District Judge Frank Damrell Jr. ordered a two-day evidentiary hearing to determine whether the Pier 5 Law Offices � “a group of sole practitioner attorneys,” their Web site says � is in fact a firm. In response, Serra’s co-counsel in the case, Laurence Lichter, said he plans to spring Serra from prison so he can testify that he’s a solo. “Larry’s going to bring me out of custody on a writ of habeas,” Serra said. “I’m going to be there to testify whether or not we are partners, and we are not,” he added. “I’ll be there in my orange jumpsuit.” Serra said he expects the government to subpoena several lawyers from his office, as well as the office manager. The messy issue at hand stems from a long-running dispute between the Pier 5 lawyers and prosecutors in various jurisdictions over whether they are, in fact, a firm. In the past, Serra said, disqualification motions have been relatively easy to fend off. “We have our canned response,” Serra said. “A number of cases have said that. We’ve always won.” But that was before Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Segal took up the issue. “Segal did a remarkable job of assessing the facts and updating the issue,” Serra said, advancing the argument to the point that Damrell felt a hearing was needed. In its brief, the government says the Pier 5 lawyers “make substantive appearances in each others’ cases, list their names together on common letterhead, use common pleading paper, supervise and share the work of subordinate attorneys, have a single telephone listing, publish a common Web site, and follow a uniform policy of ‘firing’ clients who decide to cooperate with law enforcement.” The conflict issue came up because Zenia Gilg, a lawyer formerly in Serra’s office, had earlier represented Paul Maggy, a prosecution witness. Prosecutors say Maggy hired Gilg with the understanding that “Mr. Serra would be available for consultation.” Gilg said Thursday that she dropped Maggy because of an unrelated conflict. And, she added, she doesn’t think the government is trying to kick Serra off because of his tendency to discourage snitching, since the defendants are married. But the government brief does say that the Pier 5 lawyers’ representation of Schafer and Fry is also a conflict. “Defendant Fry has on several occasions blamed her husband and co-defendant Schafer for the marijuana distribution in this case,” prosecutors wrote. “Allowing such concurrent representation by associated attorneys could easily result in a reversal of the conviction for ineffectiveness of counsel.” Ultimately, Serra said he thinks the conflict fight will work to his benefit, pushing the case back far enough that his sentence will be over when it goes to trial. “It’s going to protract everything, and for me that’s a boon because I’ll be out in time.” In the meantime, Serra said he plans to build on his past prison experiences � when he read the collected works of both Shakespeare and Carlos Castaneda, among other books � by writing a book of his own based on a Platonic dialogue and with an ending “absurd like a Kafka thing.” “I’ll fucking write it or I won’t come out,” he said.

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