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Michigan Attorney Geoffrey Fieger was recently indicted on campaign finance charges, the fourth high-profile plaintiffs’ attorney to face federal criminal charges in the past 14 months. The string of charges has caught the ire of the plaintiffs’ bar, with many well-known trial attorneys alleging that the federal government is targeting them. On Aug. 21, special prosecutors charged prominent Mississippi trial attorney Richard “Dickie” F. Scruggs with criminal contempt in a Hurricane Katrina insurance dispute. E.A. Renfroe & Co. v. Moran, No. 2:06-cv-01752-WMA (N.D. Ala.). In May, Las Vegas personal injury lawyer Noel Gage was indicted for allegedly conspiring to take part in a multimillion-dollar scheme to inflate settlements and judgments in personal injury cases. U.S. v. Gage, No. 2:07-cr-039-LDG-CRI (D. Nev.). Gage is fighting the indictment. In May, the class-action plaintiffs’ law firm Milberg Weiss and two of its attorneys were indicted on charges of orchestrating a scheme to pay off lead plaintiffs in shareholder lawsuits. U.S. v. Lazar, No. 05cr00587 (C.D. Calif.). Three other lawyers have also faced charges in the matter. The firm has denied any wrongdoing, though a former partner, David J. Bershad, pleaded guilty to charges that he conspired in the payment of illegal kickbacks to individual class-action plaintiffs. The probe is ongoing, and charges against other lawyers are anticipated. “It raises eyebrows, at the least, when you consider the people who are being targeted,” said Ted Schmidt, of the plaintiffs’ firm Kinerk, Beal, Schmidt, Dyer & Sethi in Tuscon, Ariz. “There does seem to be something of a pattern there.” Schmidt said the series of indictments also has plaintiffs’ lawyers scrutinizing their practices. “Everybody’s looking at what they’re doing and becoming very circumspect and thinking, ‘Gee, could I be the next target for something like this?’ “ U.S. Department of Justice spokesman Bryan Sierra adamantly denied claims the government is targeting plaintiffs’ lawyers. “That is not accurate and falsely represents the department’s prosecutions.” With regard to the recent Fieger indictment, Sierra said the charges had nothing to do with Fieger’s action as a trial attorney, but rather were based on a “thorough investigation by the FBI.” The indictment alleges that Fieger funneled more than $125,000 to presidential candidate John Edwards by recruiting “straw donors” to make contributions of $2,000 each. The contributions, the indictment claims, actually came from Fieger’s firm, Fieger, Fieger, Kenney, Johnson & Giroux in Southfield, Mich. US. v. Fieger, No. 07-cr-20414 (E.D. Mich.). Fieger has denied all charges in the indictment, calling it a “political prosecution.” His motion to dismiss the case was rejected last week. Sierra stressed that Fieger was not singled out for campaign finance fraud. “Campaign finance charges have been brought in the past against people who hold all kinds of jobs, including former politicians, political fundraisers, even a rare coin dealer,” Sierra said. Andrew Hruska, a former federal prosecutor in New York, also defended the Justice Department. “I don’t think there’s an overall scheme in the Justice Department to increase the scrutiny on high profile plaintiffs’ lawyers,” said Hruska, in the New York office of King & Spalding in Atlanta. “The interesting new thing is that they’ve been successful in [getting indictments] in several high-profile cases. That wasn’t always true in the past.” Mike Papantonio, a trial attorney in Florida, believes the recent indictments are part of “a design to dismantle the plaintiffs’ bar.” “Unfortunately for them, they’re picking fights with people who simply aren’t going to lay down. Fieger is going to fight back. Weiss is going to fight back. Scruggs is going to fight back,” said Papantonio, of Pensacola, Fla.’s Levin Papantonio Thomas Mitchell Echsner & Procter. Ellen Brotman, of Philadelphia’s Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhoads, who represents lawyers in disciplinary hearings, said the indictments of trial lawyers have had an impact on her line of work. “I think what we’re seeing is that there’s a more gloves-off attitude toward lawyers than there used to be among prosecutors,” Brotman said.

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