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Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker dropped the hammer on disgraced plaintiffs attorney Nikolai Tehin on Tuesday, sentencing him to 14 years in prison for stealing $2 million in settlement money from his clients. The Northern District of California judge said he would have given even more time, but was reluctant to go over prosecutors’ recommendation. Key to his decision was hearing the testimony of Tehin’s former clients. “Mr. Tehin looked his victims in the eye. He dealt with them face to face,” Walker said during a two-hour sentencing hearing. “They came to him and relied upon his abilities and reputation and, most importantly, his integrity.” But Tehin “abused that trust in the most flagrant and reprehensible manner,” the judge said. Tehin once managed a small, successful plaintiff firm, Tehin & Partners, where his wife, Pamela Stevens, also worked. But Tehin’s life began unraveling several years ago, and he started stealing from client trust accounts and then shifting money from other accounts to cover his tracks. That led to an investigation by the State Bar. The firm dissolved, and Tehin and his wife resigned under threat of disbarment. In 2003, federal prosecutors indicted Tehin. A jury convicted the lawyer last fall of all charges pursued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office: six counts of fraud and nine counts of money laundering. Prosecutors built their case around Tehin’s ethical obligations as an attorney and showcased the fact that his clients were already injured in some way when they sought his help. Clients he ripped off included low-income tenants suing a landlord over substandard living conditions and disabled infants whose parents filed medical malpractice suits. “The defendant simply treated his clients’ money as if it were his own and that violates a bedrock principle that is drilled into every lawyer,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Miles Ehrlich. Tehin’s lawyer, Harold Rosenthal of San Francisco’s Rosenthal & Gibbons, had requested that Walker only give Tehin about six years. Tuesday, he asked the judge to consider that Tehin is 58 years old and has three children. “This is a person who lost it when he was under financial pressure,” Rosenthal said. “There is not a single person who doesn’t look at this case as anything other than a cautionary tale.” Outside court, Rosenthal said he planned to appeal Walker’s sentence and would ask that Tehin be allowed to stay out of prison in the meantime. “I’m floored. This is the longest sentence I’ve ever received in federal court after a trial or plea,” Rosenthal said. “I have great respect for Judge Walker but … this is excessive in light of [Tehin's] age.” Two attorneys wrote letters to the court in connection with the sentencing. Roy Chernus, who is executive director of Legal Aid of Marin (formerly Legal Aid of the North Bay), asked Walker for a harsh sentence. Chernus’ group retained Tehin in 2000 to represent over 100 tenants suing over living conditions. Tehin stole from their settlement fund. On the other side, Guy Kornblum of Guy Kornblum & Associates in San Francisco wrote a letter asking for leniency. Kornblum, who used to be an assistant dean at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, was Tehin’s mentor when he attended the school. One of the most contentious issues was the number of people the court considered to be Tehin’s victims. The higher that number, the more years called for under the guidelines. Rosenthal argued that many of the people whose money was stolen weren’t actually victims because they eventually got paid, but Walker didn’t buy it. “The tragedy is so close to the work of all of us in the legal system. It makes the consequences all the more palpable,” Walker said. Tehin is scheduled to surrender in June to serve his prison sentence. Ehrlich told Walker that Tehin might be a flight risk, though, and suggested he be fitted with an electronic monitoring device in the meantime. A magistrate judge will evaluate the risk of flight, probably later this month. The case is U.S. v. Tehin, 03-0236.

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