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It’s been nearly eight weeks since San Francisco attorneys Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller were arrested and charged in the vicious dog-mauling death of their neighbor, Diane Whipple. Since then the two have been housed at the frosted-windowed San Francisco jail on Seventh Street, unable to make bail, which was set at $1 million for Noel and $2 million for Knoller. For these two lawyers it’s an ironic turn of events. For the last four years their practice has revolved around correctional institution litigation, and they’ve immersed themselves in nearly every aspect of prison culture. Now, they’re experiencing the real thing. Noel and Knoller are widely known for their connections to prisoners — largely because of their controversial adoption of Paul “Cornfed” Schneider, an inmate at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison. But a close look at their careers shows that their allegiance has mainly been to the other side of the bars, representing correctional officers. In fact, the two have been part of an all-out effort by a circle of guards and their powerful and well-financed union — the California Correctional Peace Officers Association — to fight investigations by state and federal officials into inmate abuse at notorious Pelican Bay. In those battles, they employed the same reckless tactics they’ve resorted to in the Whipple tragedy — creating unsupported conspiracy theories and attacking their adversaries and critics. For years Noel and Knoller served a useful function for the union, which also has a reputation as a bruising adversary. They not only handled key criminal cases for union members, but they claim they discussed legal strategy and shared information with union officials. Not surprisingly, the CCPOA now wants to distance itself from this pariah couple. When asked if the union coordinated legal strategy with Noel and Knoller, union chief counsel Benjamin Sybesma states “absolutely not,” although he concedes they might have shared information. Noel hardly seems to mind now being on the outs with the union. In fact, he acts as if he relishes it. “We’re the turd in their punchbowl,” he says with a big grin. Noel and Knoller agreed to be interviewed for this article to discuss their extensive work for correctional officers. The two, who were interviewed separately for a total of nearly six hours, declined to discuss anything directly related to Whipple’s death. Both face charges of manslaughter and failure to control a mischievous dog; Knoller, who was with the dogs during the attack, has also been charged with second-degree murder. During sessions in a small windowless room at the jail, both Noel and Knoller seem surprisingly relaxed and at ease. The 45-year-old Knoller, who appears small and thin under her baggy orange jail sweatshirt, sits relatively still and speaks articulately with a quiet determination. The heavyset Noel, 59, is more voluble, even flippant at times, tilting his chair back and stretching out his arms, frequently smiling and laughing at his observations. When Noel and Knoller talk about their work for correctional officers, they cast themselves in the role of civil rights lawyers devoted to a lonely but righteous crusade. Their clients, they say, are brave, honest prison guards who came forward to report abuse at Pelican Bay. Instead of being rewarded, these whistle-blowers were punished with trumped-up disciplinary actions and in some cases criminal charges, they maintain. The fact that this theory has been rejected by every one of the numerous judges who have scrutinized their claims is only proof, in their eyes, of the total corruption of the system. There’s little doubt that the remote Pelican Bay, located next to Crescent City near the Oregon border, had problems with corruption in the past. Soon after the maximum-security facility opened in 1989, prisoner advocates labeled it inhumane. Among other things, they claimed that excessive force by guards against inmates was routinely used, condoned and covered up. Led by Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, prisoner advocates filed a federal class action on behalf of inmates. In his 1995 decision in Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F. Supp. 1146, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson expressed outrage at conditions and ordered an overhaul of policies. DEFENDING A GUARD The Madrid ruling indirectly gave Noel and Knoller their first case for a Pelican Bay guard. In 1994 they filed a federal civil rights action for John Cox, who claimed Pelican Bay officials disciplined him in retaliation for his testimony about prison problems during the Madrid trial. Noel and Knoller were recommended to Cox by Wilson Sonsini partner David Steuer, one of the lead lawyers for the Madrid plaintiffs. Steuer had gotten to know Noel by working opposite him on a commercial litigation matter involving Broderbund Software Inc. Cox’s case against various California Department of Corrections officials didn’t go far. The court threw out the suit on summary judgment, pointing to evidence that Cox had been disciplined for legitimate reasons, including numerous sexual harassment complaints from co-workers. In the summer of 1997, Noel and Knoller landed a higher-stakes assignment for one of Cox’s friends and co-workers, Jose Garcia. The former Pelican Bay guard faced criminal charges brought by the Del Norte County district attorney alleging that Garcia conspired with inmates to attack two convicted child molesters. Garcia, who was charged in 1996, was initially represented by another lawyer; the couple entered the case five months before it went to trial. Garcia’s indictment, which marked the first time a guard faced criminal charges for his actions at the prison, was a landmark step in efforts to curb abuses at Pelican Bay. The investigation of Garcia was part of a wider probe by a revamped Pelican Bay internal affairs team. The investigators came across information pointing to a clique of guards that cooperated with inmates to set up child molesters. In the prison pecking order, child molesters are abhorred as the lowest of the low. These guards allegedly checked prison records to identify molesters and passed that information to inmates. The guards then worked with inmates to arrange attacks on the molesters. Convicting Garcia wouldn’t be easy. Pelican Bay is the largest employer in California’s conservative Del Norte County, which has only 28,000 residents. The prosecution would also have to rely heavily on the testimony of inmates, who don’t always have the most credibility. In addition, the guards union rallied behind Garcia. Its legal defense fund agreed to pay up to $25,000 of his defense fee, as its members’ benefit plan provides. Most of that money, however, went to Garcia’s first lawyer. When Noel and Knoller took over, only $6,200 was left. Noel says he spoke often to local union officials about the case. “We had a very close relationship with the local CCPOA chapter,” he states, noting that he had daily phone discussions with Pelican Bay chapter vice-president Richard Newton. Newton could not be reached last week. Shortly before Garcia’s criminal trial began, Noel says he met with officials of the CCPOA and its legal defense fund at their Sacramento headquarters. Noel claims union chief counsel Sybesma and staff attorney Daniel Lindsay were present. Sybesma says he doesn’t recall the meeting. Lindsay did not return calls. According to Noel, they discussed the scope of the Pelican Bay investigations. “We’re laying out what we’re seeing. Where we think [local prosecutors are] going. How they will turn it over to the feds. How [the Del Norte district attorney] will do a big follow-on investigation.” Noel says he also asked at that meeting for more money. “We told them, ‘you have a freight train bearing down on your members. We can stop them with Jose [Garcia] and we’re pretty certain we can. It might save you a lot in long run,’ ” Noel recalls. “ We figured it would take at least $150,000 to do it right. They didn’t give us dick.” Knoller says they did get another $2,500 for costs. Sybesma confirms that the legal defense fund denied a request for additional fees, but doesn’t recall the request coming from Noel. Garcia’s trial, which began in fall 1997, was the longest in Del Norte County history. It lasted three months, and 93 witnesses took the stand. Noel handled all the courtroom appearances. Knoller accompanied her husband to court nearly every day, but rarely said anything during the proceedings. During the first few months of the trial, the couple stayed on the property of one of Garcia’s friends, guard E. Michael Powers, who was also being investigated by authorities. Noel says Garcia’s friends and family pitched in to pay him and Knoller an additional $19,000, after the union refused to give them more money. In the courtroom, Noel argued that Garcia had been framed by a bunch of crooked investigators and prosecutors. He leveled personal attacks against government witnesses. At one point Noel asked a female guard if she had ever had sex with an inmate. “Their defense I would describe as guard rumors, but they didn’t have the evidence to back it up,” says Craig Franklin, a CDC special agent who was part of the investigative team and who attended the trial. Noel arguably made a misstep by introducing into evidence potentially damaging statements his clients had made during a CDC investigation, which he could have kept out of the record. In January 1998 a Del Norte jury convicted Garcia of conspiracy to assault and assault on one of the inmates. It failed to reach a verdict on the assault of a second inmate. He was sentenced to four years and eight months. Noel handled Garcia’s appeal, arguing that there was an elaborate conspiracy between the CDC and the district attorney to frame Garcia. The appellate judges were skeptical, to say the least: “These are serious allegations indeed, and we question whether even the most charitable reading of the record would support that such events occurred.” Garcia’s conviction was affirmed. LAUNCHING AN ASSAULT Around the same time that Noel and Knoller were working on Garcia’s criminal case, they were launching an assault on another front to try to hold off further indictments. Not only was the Del Norte district attorney investigating other guards, but the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were nosing around. Beginning in March 1997, Noel and Knoller started filing a series of RICO suits against Del Norte District Attorney William Cornell; the lead prosecutor in the Garcia case, James Fallman; and practically anyone else connected to Garcia’s prosecution. In all, Noel dragged 24 individuals into a suit filed on Garcia’s behalf. It alleged that the CDC and the district attorney’s office had cooked up a scheme to encourage violence at Pelican Bay. Their goal, Noel and Knoller contended, was to create such a dangerous prison climate that the state would feel compelled to give the prison and the DA more money. Garcia, he alleged, was an honest guard who was framed for trying to blow the whistle on this nefarious plot. Garcia’s suit was followed by similar RICO actions filed on behalf of other guards under investigation, including David Lewis and Powers (who housed the couple during the Garcia trial). One lawyer who represented a defendant in these suits says Noel’s complaints were hard to decipher. “What Bob was trying to do was overwhelm you with lots and lots of allegations, usually rather vaguely worded. … There’s lots of hoopla and lengthy allegations about conspiracy theories.” (Because Noel and Knoller have a reputation for being litigious, many people interviewed for this article did not want to be quoted by name.) Around the same time the union was pursuing its own effort to discredit the four investigators on the Pelican Bay internal affairs team. It charged that they were corrupt and had coerced inmates into lying. The CDC reacted by pulling the team off some of their duties and putting them under investigation. The CCPOA, which has an in-house staff of 23 lawyers, also filed charges against the four with the state personnel board and went to court to try to get them disciplined. Noel and Knoller say their RICO suits and the union’s actions were part of a joint effort to “slow down” the federal and local investigations. “We talked to the union about shutting them down,” says Knoller. Noel adds, “Maybe the RICO cases would show them what they would face if they did big follow-on [indictments]. It was not so much to stall or impede, but trying to educate them to the fact that you’ve got big trouble if you come this way. You will lose.” The couple say they did not discuss the RICO suits with the union before they were filed, but afterward traded information. “One thing we’ve always done,” says Noel, “if we can get information from the union helpful to us or give information to the union, we would.” Knoller says they dealt mostly with union staff lawyer Lindsay, who was handling the state personnel board actions. “It was a very cordial, collegial relationship,” she says, noting that she has Lindsay’s home number. Lindsay did not return calls. Union chief counsel Sybesma says he never discussed a strategy to slow investigations with Noel or Knoller. “We welcome investigations. We always have,” he states. “But we want them done in a fair way.” He also downplays any cooperation with the couple. “There may have been overlapping issues,” he says when asked if they traded information. “There may have been those kind of discussions,” he says. “But I don’t believe the CCPOA was involved in any of Noel’s strategies on any of his legal actions.” Sybesma also emphasizes that even though the union’s legal defense fund paid Noel, the lawyer was selected by Garcia. “[Noel] was never, ever hired by the union,” states Sybesma. In the end, Noel and Knoller’s RICO suits fizzled. All were dismissed on summary judgment or on the pleadings. One is on appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The union’s attacks on the internal affairs unit also failed. In the end, the Department of Corrections cleared the investigators, finding they had been falsely accused. It put them back on the job, but the local Del Norte investigation had been disrupted. “It caused a great delay,” says Capt. Daniel Smith, who then headed the Pelican Bay internal affairs unit and who is now a facilities captain at Pelican Bay. The Del Norte district attorney never did indict anyone beyond Garcia. Noel and Knoller brag that their strategy succeeded. “I think we had some effect,” says Noel, noting that the U.S. Attorney didn’t file an indictment until a year and a half after Garcia’s conviction. “To that extent we blew them off track.” Knoller also takes credit for slowing down the federal probe: “We shut down the federal case for two years. Basically it was an express train. I think we slowed it down to a freight.” She says they weren’t trying to obstruct, just get the government to see both sides more clearly. Noel and Knoller may simply have a grandiose view of their accomplishments. CDC special agent Franklin, who was assigned to assist the FBI investigation, says the federal probe wasn’t delayed by these actions. “It didn’t slow us down,” he says. “I think [the federal team] saw through all [those claims].” A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney had no comment. TARGETING DEL NORTE’S DA Even if the union didn’t strategize with the couple to slow down the federal probe, it made sure Del Norte’s district attorney, Cornell, knew that it wasn’t happy with him. In the spring of 1998 Cornell was up for re-election and the CCPOA contributed $18,000 to a challenger, breaking a record for contributions in the small county. “In my opinion, it seemed clear to me that if I continued to prosecute people affiliated with the union they would do whatever they could to make sure I was DA no more,” says Cornell. He won the election, but within a year stepped down. Since then, Cornell has given up the practice of law and is attending medical school on a Caribbean island. This wouldn’t be the only time that the CCPOA — which takes in roughly $1.5 million a month in dues from approximately 28,000 members — would take aim at a prosecutor trying to investigate guard abuses. Also in 1998, after the Kings County district attorney started probing the alleged “gladiator fights” at Corcoran state prison, the union put more than $25,000 behind a challenger. That district attorney was defeated. Noel and Knoller seemed undeterred by their setbacks in the Garcia case and the RICO actions. As soon as one case was dismissed, they filed another. Since 1997 Noel and Knoller have filed at least 21 federal lawsuits on behalf of prison guards and employees, targeting primarily the CDC and its officials. Not all involve the Pelican Bay investigation; many assert lofty civil rights violations for often routine workplace grievances. Most have been dismissed on the pleadings or on summary judgment.

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