(Photo by Maggie Soladay)
When four former Dewey & LeBoeuf insiders were charged earlier this month with engineering a massive fraud that helped kill the storied firm, Dennis D’Alessandro was neither one of the defendants nor among the seven unnamed people who have already pleaded guilty in the matter. According to his lawyer, however, he may yet offer his take on Dewey’s demise in court.
Bruce Barket, of Garden City, N.Y.–based Barket Marion Epstein & Kearon, says that D’Alessandro, a fellow Long Islander who served as Dewey’s longtime chief operating officer, approached him more than a year ago as he sought legal representation amid the fallout from the largest law firm collapse in U.S. history.
In a phone conversation Thursday with The Am Law Daily, Barket confirmed that D’Alessandro could well testify if the case against former Dewey chairman Steven Davis, the firm’s former executive director Stephen DiCarmine, former chief financial officer Joel Sanders and onetime client relations manager Zachary Warren goes to trial.
If the former COO does wind up taking the witness stand, it will be because he and Barket were able to persuade prosecutors that D’Alessandro wasn’t part of the alleged criminal conspiracy that helped bring down the firm.
“[Dennis] was certainly a person of interest early on,” Barket says. “He was made an offer to cooperate but turned it down. He’s done nothing wrong and just wants to remain neutral in all of this.”
While stopping short of saying his client has blanket immunity, Barket says D’Alessandro does not have to worry about being charged in state court. The New York Times was first to report on D’Alessandro’s status in the case in a late Wednesday story speculating on the identities of the seven individuals who have pleaded guilty in the case so far.
The Am Law Daily explored that same subject last week in a story that focused on the likelihood that former Dewey finance director Francis “Frank” Canellas and ex-controller Thomas Mullikin are two of the secret seven given that they both face civil charges in a parallel civil complaint filed by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Citing anonymous sources, the Times reported that Canellas and Mullikin have indeed accepted guilty pleas, as has Dewey’s former director of budgeting and planning Ilya Alter. Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, which Mullikin joined after leaving Dewey in 2011, confirmed Thursday that he is no longer employed by the firm.
Brian Maas, a partner with New York’s Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz who is representing Canellas in the SEC case, did not respond to a request for comment. Kenneth Kaplan, a founder of New York’s Kaplan & Katzberg representing Mullikin in that matter, declined to comment. It was not clear as of Thursday who Alter’s attorney might be.
The Times also reported that it has filed motions in New York State Supreme Court seeking to unseal the six of the seven criminal cases involving guilty pleas in the Dewey case. On Thursday, ALM Media LLC, parent company and publisher of The Am Law Daily, contacted the judges overseeing the relevant cases as part of its own effort to make the names public.
As for D’Alessandro—who took early retirement in June 2011, but returned in a consulting role as the firm fought to survive in early 2012—he first contacted Barket in the context of the Dewey bankruptcy proceedings after the firm’s estate moved to terminate his contract.
Barket says D’Alessandro met with assistant district attorney Peirce Moser and others from the Manhattan D.A.’s office last summer. Meanwhile, Barket Marion attorneys—including Barket, managing partner and former Nassau County Judge David Ayres and associate Alexander Klein—met separately with SEC officials pursuing civil charges against former Dewey lawyers and employees. D’Alessandro was not directly involved in those talks, Barket says.
D’Alessandro, who Barket says is comfortably retired on Long Island, began serving as COO of predecessor firm Dewey Ballantine in 1992. Over the next 15 years, he became the executive director of the firm prior to its August 2007 merger with LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae.
As a top firm executive, D’Alessandro participated in Dewey Ballantine’s 2005 decision to move from an accrual accounting system to a cash-based model, which some believe is more accurate because it counts a firm’s income as it is received, rather than when it is booked. That shift was one of a series of changes that also saw the firm require partners to contribute more capital up front, according to our previous reports.
D’Alessandro had a hand in other major business decisions. It was he who explained in a January 2006 American Lawyer story that Dewey Ballantine had “made a strategic decision to eliminate certain practice areas that did not fit with our overall growth plan,” such as an environmental and real estate lending group. (That story detailed the financial troubles plaguing the firm at the time as well as litigation it was facing by former partners.)
As a nonvoting member of Dewey Ballantine’s management committee, D’Alessandro was also a key figure in the firm’s 2006 merger talks with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. Six months after the firms called off those negotiations in January 2007, D’Alessandro spoke with now-defunct ALM publication LawFirm Inc. about the rise of C-level, nonlawyer administrators like himself at Am Law 100 firms. He also told LawFirm Inc. that the failed talks with Orrick had been a painful experience.
“We are not looking at any other mergers at the moment,” D’Alessandro said at the time. “That is not what we are going to be doing.”
Roughly two months later, Dewey Ballantine announced that it was joining forces with LeBoeuf Lamb. As it turned out, the union would not prove to benefit D’Alessandro, say two former Dewey employees. “Dennis was kind of inherited in the merger,” says one. “He was a straight-up kind of guy … but he was a little on the side.”
Davis, who had served as LeBoeuf Lamb’s chairman, became head of the combined firm and installed his LeBoeuf Lamb lieutenants—DiCarmine and Sanders—in top posts. The two former Dewey insiders say D’Alessandro was kept on as a favor to Dewey Ballantine powerbrokers, such as former cochairman and subsequent Dewey vice chair Morton Pierce. Both say Davis, DiCarmine and Sanders kept D’Alessandro in the dark about Dewey’s financial inner workings, instead having him supervise budgets for marketing and some staff operations.
While that narrative has infuriated those representing the troika of Davis, DiCarmine and Sanders, whose supporters claim that legacy LeBoeuf Lamb executives have been unfairly targeted as those on the Dewey Ballantine side walked free, the shift in status from insider to outsider is one that D’Alessandro’s lawyer Barket readily acknowledges, noting that it no doubt figured into prosecutors’ decision not to pursue his client more vigorously.
Asked if D’Alessandro will testify, Barket says that while the former COO is not jumping at the chance, he will “do what he’s legally obligated to do” when it comes to discussing what he knows about Dewey. Barket notes that learning about the internal machinations of a megafirm like Dewey with 1,000 lawyers around the world was fascinating to him as someone whose own shop consists of 10 attorneys.
“Just looking at the management structure, how things were financed and profits shared was really interesting,” says Barket of what he’s picked up in the course of representing D’Alessandro. “I’d never really understood how big firms work, but we don’t really have any aspirations to become one.”
Additional reporting by Julie Triedman and Tom Huddleston Jr.