To paraphrase one attorney: Joseph Ganim dug himself a hole too deep to climb out of.
The state Supreme Court on April 9 rejected a bid by the former Bridgeport mayor to regain his law license, a license that was suspended after he was sentenced to prison in 2003 and served seven years on corruption charges. In all, Ganim, who was mayor from 1991 to 2003, was convicted on 16 charges, including extortion, bribery and racketeering. He was accused of steering city contracts to companies and individuals who gave him hundreds of thousands of dollars in expensive wine, custom clothes, cash and home improvements.
In a 26-page decision written by Chief Justice Chase Rogers, the court spent significant space offering details of Ganim’s lawbreaking. The justices concluded: “We acknowledge that a criminal conviction is not an absolute bar to regaining a license to practice law and that, in Connecticut, no statute or court rule directly answers the question of what period of time constitutes an adequate period of rehabilitation for an individual with a record of misconduct comparable to the defendant’s.
“We are confident, however, that in the present case, the defendant has not demonstrated a period of exemplary behavior persisting for a sufficient period of time to offset his transgressions and, accordingly, to provide the necessary assurance that he may once again be entrusted with the practice of law.”
Elsewhere in the decision, the court stated: “To practice law, an individual must possess not only legal competence and professional capability, but also good moral character.”
Steven L. Seligman, of Katz & Seligman in Hartford, said the ruling sends a message to other attorneys who have run afoul of the law and hope to regain their license. “The deeper the hole the applicant has dug, the more egregious his misconduct has been, the greater the showing he’s going to have to make to get out of the hole,” said Seligman, who has represented lawyers who have tried to regain their licenses. “The more poorly [an attorney] has behaved, the greater the burden is on him to show that he’s ‘presently fit’” to practice law.
Seligman added: “I don’t think this case makes new law. What it does do is give us guidance for thinking more precisely about proving ‘present fitness.’ The Supreme Court goes to great pains to show all the ways Ganim behaved that disqualified him from being a lawyer.”
Stephen Conover, of Carmody Torrance Sandak & Hennessey in Stamford, said he didn’t think the Supreme Court has created “a new or higher standard” for lawbreaking attorneys who apply for readmission to the bar.
“This decision highlights the consistent balancing test used when courts consider readmission applications of lawyers convicted of felonies,” Conover said. “The chief justice was careful to rely on the precedent found in other cases decided in Connecticut involving readmission applications of lawyers convicted of felonies, along with a long list of cases decided in sister states.”
David Atkins, of Pullman & Comley, who represents attorneys in disciplinary proceedings, including hearings on attorney requests for readmission to practice, said that “it appears at least one consequence of the decision for lawyers seeking reinstatement following a criminal conviction, is that the courts and the standing committees will insist that, during the suspension period, the applicant used the ‘time off’ to engage in genuine service to the community.”
Ganim had reportedly been working as a paralegal at his family’s law firm. Those answering phone calls placed to the firm said they had not seen him recently.
His lawyer, Harold Rosnick, did not return calls seeking comment. Last fall, during oral arguments, he told the justices his client has shown remorse and deserves to get back his law license. “Every major religion believes in redemption and rehabilitation,” Rosnick said. “He paid a severe price. He accepted the consequences. … He is taking responsibility.”
Ganim got out of prison in 2010 and the very next year launched efforts to regain his law license.
A panel of lawyers, the Fairfield County Standing Committee on Recommendations to the Bar, held hearings, at which 11 friends, acquaintances and attorneys offered glowing reports about Ganim’s postincarceration conduct and his character. The panel concluded that the former Democratic mayor was honest and trustworthy enough to resume practicing law.
But a panel of three Superior Court judges noted that Ganim has steadfastly denied that he was guilty of corruption while in office and rejected the standing committee’s recommendation. The judges noted that members of the panel may not have been completely impartial because of prior relationships with Ganim or his family members.
“Allowing an applicant to be readmitted to the practice of law following a conviction on 16 counts of racketeering, conspiracy, extortion, mail fraud, bribery and filing false income tax returns without any apology … simply would set the bar for readmission too low in the state, and we are unwilling to do that,” the panel wrote.
Ganim took the matter to the Supreme Court, where his lawyer claimed that the three-judge panel improperly failed to defer to the standing committee’s recommendation, misinterpreted the standing committee’s report, committed legal improprieties when reviewing the report, and wrongfully determined that some of the standing committee’s findings were erroneous.
But the justices ruled that the three-judge panel committed no improprieties, and instead pointed a finger at the standing committee. “We hold that the trial court properly concluded that the standing committee abused its discretion when it determined that the defendant was presently fit to practice law and recommended his reinstatement,” Rogers wrote.
Patricia King, the state’s chief disciplinary counsel, had argued the case before the Supreme Court, where she noted the severity of Ganim’s misdeeds and opined that he had shown little remorse. Others have noted that Ganim, after being released from prison, even launched a consulting business offering advice to others who, according to a website, were “wrongly” targeted by federal authorities.
After the Supreme Court issued its decision, King said she believed that would be the end of the matter.
“This is the highest court in the state, so he has no other recourse here,” she said. “He could always file a petition for certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court, but I doubt it would be accepted because he didn’t raise any federal constitutional issues and the application for reinstatement is a state court issue.”•