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After the dozens of news stories, flurries of grand jury activity and periodic inquiries by the Los Angeles U.S. Attorney’s Office, there’s one enduring mystery in the ongoing attempt to prosecute the former plaintiffs firm Milberg Weiss: Why’s it taking so long? In the five years since prosecutors began probing the securities class action firm and star lawyer William Lerach, the investigation has produced a peripheral indictment, a trove of gossip and a look at some of Beverly Hills’ less savory characters. But it hasn’t resulted in charges against its presumed targets. Lawyers familiar with the case cite a handful of contributors to the investigation’s length: the difficulties of prosecuting a lawyer, the need for circumspection in going after deep-pocketed, high-profile attorneys, and a one-year fight to disqualify Milberg Weiss’ defense counsel. But most of all, they ascribe the delay to a single person: Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Robinson, the lead prosecutor in the case. Robinson, according to several former prosecutors speaking on condition of anonymity, is known for moving at a methodical pace, spending as much time as he is allowed to gather documents, interview witnesses and develop cooperators before filing an indictment. While this quality has a tendency to frustrate defense attorneys — and sometimes fellow prosecutors — Robinson is known for developing particularly thorough indictments. “I think most prosecutors, when dealing with a high-profile entity and partners of the entity as targets, will move cautiously and deliberately,” said Walter Brown Jr., a partner at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe and a former L.A. federal prosecutor. “If you couple that with a prosecutor who is cautious, deliberate and slow-moving, it’s not that strange” to spend five years on a case. Robinson’s successes include the 2000 insurance fraud conviction of Steven Cooperman, which sparked the Milberg investigation. After his conviction for faking the theft of two paintings to collect on an insurance policy, Cooperman — in an attempt to reduce his sentence — told prosecutors that he received kickbacks from the Milberg firm in cases where he served as the lead plaintiff. Since then, Robinson and several other prosecutors, including Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Emmick — who assisted in Kenneth Starr’s investigation of President Clinton — and, more recently, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert McGahan, have ranged far and wide in their attempt to prosecute the firm. In addition to Cooperman, they’ve interviewed two other former lead plaintiffs who have immunity — and claim to have received kickbacks. Since 2000, the prosecutors have also been focused on Richard Purtich, a Los Angeles insurance lawyer, according to attorneys with knowledge of the investigation. Those sources say prosecutors have been investigating Cooperman’s claim that — in cases where Cooperman was the lead plaintiff — Purtich improperly passed referral fees from Milberg Weiss on to Cooperman. The Los Angeles Times reported in August that, in divorce proceedings, Cooperman said he took direct payments from Purtich, and that Milberg Weiss paid Purtich about $2 million to cover Cooperman’s outstanding legal fees. A similar set of payments was alleged in a June indictment of former Milberg client Seymour Lazar and his lawyer, Paul Selzer. Purtich — whose attorney, L.A.-based William Genego Jr., wouldn’t say whether his client appeared before the grand jury — represented Cooperman in a suit against insurance companies after he faked the theft of a Picasso and Monet in 1992. And while he has never faced criminal charges, Purtich also represented another notorious Beverly Hills insurance fraudster, lawyer Rex DeGeorge. DeGeorge, who is currently not eligible to practice law, was convicted in 2002 of artificially inflating the value of his yacht before sinking it off the coast of Italy in 1992. Purtich represented him in a suit against the company that insured the boat. The fact that Purtich — like the investigation’s targets — is an attorney can make things especially sticky, said three former prosecutors. “The biggest difference investigating criminal allegations against a lawyer is the very important but cumbersome process of going to Main Justice and getting permission for subpoenas and search warrants,” said Patrick Robbins, a former San Francisco prosecutor and a partner at Shearman & Sterling. In addition to navigating privilege issues, two lawyers familiar with the case said prosecutors spent nearly a year working to disqualify Williams & Connolly, the Washington, D.C., firm that had been representing Milberg Weiss, since it had briefly represented Cooperman. Williams & Connolly was disqualified about a year ago. Milberg Weiss is now represented by Bryan Daly at L.A.’s Beck, De Corso, Daly, Kreindler & Harris, who didn’t return phone calls. Lerach is represented by Keker & Van Nest’s John Keker.

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