Bernabei & Wachtel’s Lynne Bernabei (Diego M. Radzinschi / NLJ)
A former in-house lawyer for General Electric Co. stands accused of disclosing confidential company documents to federal agencies and the press after she was fired, according to newly released ethics charges filed in Washington.
The lawyer, M. Adriana Koeck, isn’t the only attorney facing ethics charges tied to the alleged disclosure of GE documents. Koeck’s former attorney, Lynne Bernabei of Bernabei & Wachtel in Washington, and her former law professor, G. Robert Blakey, were also charged with misconduct for assisting Koeck.
The District of Columbia Office of Bar Counsel launched an investigation into Koeck’s actions in 2008, and opened files on Bernabei and Blakey in 2012. All three were served with the charges in July. The case is not the first featuring a multiyear gap between the launch of an ethics investigation and the filing of charges; the office has faced scrutiny in the past about delays.
Koeck was acting as a whistleblower when she disclosed the documents, claiming she had evidence of fraud at GE, according to bar counsel records. Before she was fired in early 2007 — Koeck said it was retaliation, GE that there were performance issues — Koeck allegedly made a copy of her hard drive. The Office of Bar Counsel said Koeck disclosed confidential documents on several occasions after she was fired, with help from Bernabei and Blakey.
Bernabei and Blakey plan to fight the allegations. Multiple efforts to reach Koeck were unsuccessful. Bar records in California and Florida indicated she had moved to Arizona. None of the three lawyers charged has a history of discipline in Washington. The D.C. Bar suspended Koeck’s membership for failure to pay dues, according to bar records.
Bernabei said she is “convinced that my conduct met all appropriate standards and look forward to proving that at the hearing.” Bernabei, represented by Zuckerman Spaeder partner Thomas Mason, declined to discuss the case further.
Blakey, an emeritus professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School who is also a consultant, is represented by Trout Cacheris & Janis name partner Robert Trout. Blakey said he “did nothing wrong and I will spend every last dime that I have vindicating my good name.” He declined to discuss details of the case.
Bar Counsel Wallace “Gene” Shipp Jr. also declined to discuss the case.
Koeck joined GE as an in-house lawyer in January 2006, according to court records. She signed a confidentiality agreement that required her to return secret materials to the company if she were ever fired and to never disclose that information to third parties.
Soon after starting the job, however, Koeck believed she had uncovered evidence that the company was engaging in fraud by helping customers in Brazil avoid certain taxes, according to the bar counsel charging documents. She reported her findings to an unnamed company divisional general counsel, who declined to take additional action.
By the end of her first year, Koeck’s job was in jeopardy. GE claims it was because of poor performance. Koeck, according to court filings, accused the company of retaliating against her for alleging corporate fraud. GE found no evidence of retaliation and fired her in January 2007.
In April 2007, Koeck filed a whistleblower-retaliation complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor. Her lawyer at the time wasn’t named in bar counsel documents, but he was identified in court filings as Joseph Cotchett of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy in California. Cotchett, who did not return a request for comment, was not charged by bar counsel.
CONTACTED FOR HELP
In August 2007, Koeck contacted Blakey, her former law professor, for advice, according to bar counsel. Blakey allegedly helped Koeck provide confidential information to a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois. There was no court record of that office bringing charges against GE over the Brazilian tax issue. In November 2007, Koeck hired Bernabei & Wachtel to represent her.
Bernabei, bar counsel alleged, told a GE lawyer she was under “marching orders” to contact reporters if GE refused to go to mediation over Koeck’s whistleblower claims. Blakey is accused of helping Koeck provide information to a reporter from The New York Times. The reporter later published a story about the tax issue in another publication, Tax Notes International. Bar counsel said Koeck also gave confidential information to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, with support from Blakey and Bernabei.
GE sued Koeck in June 2008 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, asking a judge to stop her from disclosing any more confidential information and to order her to return company records. GE, represented by DLA Piper and Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, sought at least $100,000 in damages. Court records show Koeck fought back with accusations of retaliation. The two sides eventually agreed to arbitrate Koeck’s counterclaims.
GE and Koeck resolved the lawsuit in January 2009. Many documents remain under seal, but court records show the settlement was part of a larger agreement reached in a putative gender discrimination class action against GE in Connecticut federal court.
The bar counsel office in Washington filed charges against Koeck, Bernabei and Blakey in August 2013, but didn’t get approval from a separate office that reviews discipline cases to move ahead until late June of this year.
Shipp declined to discuss the timing of his office’s actions in the Koeck matter. His office has faced questions about prosecution delays in other cases. In June, a hearing committee in another D.C. attorney ethics case found there was a “massive and inexcusable” delay by bar counsel. The complaint in that case was filed in 2005 and charges were filed in 2013.