As often happens, lawyers ended up making headlines often over the past year—and not all of the news stemmed from stellar behavior.
From attorneys accused of stealing from their former law firms to judges facing corruption charges to criticisms for exceeding the boundaries of zealous advocacy, several developments in 2018 shone a light on dubious activity within the legal community. Here’s a look back at some of the past year’s notable stories involving judicial and lawyer misconduct or the alleged blurring of ethical lines.
Thefts From Firms Prompt Charges, Plus a Prison Sentence
Though it didn’t start in 2018, the saga of former Hunton & Williams and Willkie Farr & Gallagher partner Keila Ravelo reached a pair of milestones throughout the year—a disbarment and a prison sentence.
Ravelo was accused alongside her husband of setting up a pair of dummy litigation support companies, then using her partner position at Hunton & Williams and Willkie to illicitly funnel millions of dollars to the vendors, which provided little or no service. Believing the vendors were legitimate businesses, the two law firms passed the bill for the expenses to Ravelo’s former client MasterCard Inc. In all, prosecutors said, Ravelo’s scheme lasted from 2008 to 2014 and resulted in more than $7.8 million in ill-gotten gains.
After pleading guilty in 2017 on conspiracy to commit wire fraud and tax evasion charges, Ravelo’s case entered a punishment phase in 2018. In July, she was disbarred in New York, an action set off automatically because of the seriousness of the crimes she admitted to in her guilty plea. Then, in November, Ravelo had her criminal sentencing in New Jersey federal court, which resulted in a five-year prison term that she’s likely to begin in January.
Ravelo, however, wasn’t the only lawyer in 2018 to make news related to alleged theft from law firms. Those kinds of allegations, albeit on a smaller scale, also circled around a lawyer based in Spokane, Washington, who previously headed the state’s bar association.
That lawyer, Robin Haynes, had been touted as the youngest lawyer to ever serve as president of the Washington State Bar Association. She resigned from that role in 2017, however, and in October Haynes was charged with theft and identity theft related to allegations that she misappropriated more than $25,000 from the bar group and two law firms—Witherspoon Kelley and McNeice Wheeler—where she previously worked.
Prosecutors accused Haynes of using firm credit cards to pay for gym memberships, travel and other expenses and of being reimbursed by the state bar association for purported expenses she never actually incurred.
An Entire State Supreme Court Impeached, One Ex-Judge Convicted
West Virginia’s highest state court also had a trying 2018. At one point in August, citing alleged abuses of taxpayer money, the state’s legislature voted to impeach the entire slate of four judges who were then sitting on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.
Ultimately, the court ended the year with a full complement of five justices, with one of those sitting by temporary assignment. Some judges made it through the impeachment debacle relatively unscathed, including the current chief justice Margaret Workman, who successfully challenged the impeachment vote in October. Workman’s predecessor, however, met a less fortunate fate when he was convicted of federal criminal charges.
The former chief justice, Allen Loughry II, faced accusations that he used a government vehicle for personal trips, then improperly sought reimbursement for travel expenses. Prosecutors also accused him of removing a “historically significant” desk—designed by the famed architect Cass Gilbert—from a government building and bringing it to his home office.
The former judge, who had once written a book on political corruption in West Virginia, also allegedly lied to federal investigators about the travel expenses and the Gilbert desk, and tried to persuade a court employee to give misleading testimony in a grand jury investigation. In October, he was convicted on 11 of 22 counts he faced in a criminal indictment, including on charges of wire fraud, making false statements, mail fraud and witness tampering. Loughry was found not guilty on 10 other counts, while a federal jury deadlocked on a remaining mail fraud count.
As 2018 ends, Loughry is awaiting a sentencing hearing scheduled for mid-January.
Overzealous Advocacy in the President’s Orbit
Of course, any review of lawyers who spent part of 2018 in hot water would be incomplete without mentioning Michael Cohen, the former personal lawyer and fixer for U.S. President Donald Trump, whose past actions led to a prison sentence.
Elsewhere, others in the president’s circle—including a Cabinet secretary and Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, a frequent defender of Trump in connection with the ongoing Russia investigation—also faced scrutiny for their handling of a decade-old sex crimes case in Florida against billionaire Jeffrey Epstein. Both the Epstein story and Cohen’s saga raised questions about where to draw the line of zealously advocating for a client.
For his part, Cohen was sentenced in December to three years in prison after Manhattan federal prosecutors and officials from the office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller accused him of campaign finance violations, tax fraud, lying to Congress and other misdeeds.
The core of the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s case against him involved allegations that Cohen made payments to the publisher of the National Enquirer in order to convince the publication to sit on information about Trump’s potential extramarital affairs. Prosecutors alleged—and Cohen admitted—that the hush money payments were aimed at influencing the 2016 presidential election and protecting Trump during the campaign.
During his sentencing hearing, Cohen said his crimes stemmed from a “blind loyalty” to Trump and a misplaced willingness to cover up bad behavior by his former boss.
Also toward the end of 2018, the Miami Herald published a detailed exposé into a secretive, 2008 plea deal that allowed the billionaire Epstein—who police believed had sexually abused and trafficked dozens of underage girls—to sign a nonprosecution agreement that insulated him from serious charges he could have faced in a sex crimes case against him.
The newspaper’s report focused, in large part, on behind-the-scenes negotiations that involved a key prosecutor on Epstein’s case, former U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta—now the labor secretary in Trump’s Cabinet—and Epstein’s high-powered legal team. The billionaire’s defense lawyers included Kirkland & Ellis partner Jay Lefkowitz, as well as Kenneth Starr, Alan Dershowitz, white-collar giants Roy Black and Gerald Lefcourt, and former U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis.
In the aftermath of the Miami Herald report, Acosta has faced blowback from critics who argue that he agreed to a sweetheart deal for a pedophile. But Epstein’s defense lawyers, while not accused of any formal wrongdoing or unethical conduct, have also faced criticism for their aggressive tactics. As Litigation Daily columnist Jenna Greene explained in an analysis of the Epstein case, there’s a chance that aggression on the defense team’s part may now actually come back to haunt their client.
“They can’t be faulted for trying to get the best deal possible for their client. That was their job, and they did it well. Maybe too well,” Greene wrote of Epstein’s defense team in December. “Because they so thoroughly steamrolled Acosta and federal prosecutor A. Marie Villafaña, the nonprosecution agreement could still be invalidated 10 years later.”