The Supreme Court has thrown out ethics charges against a former prosecutor accused of exerting improper influence against an agency he used to work for, but the panel still said the case ”highlights a series of troublesome practices and leaves a number of questions unanswered.”
The Office of Attorney Ethics accused Yaron Helmer of improperly influencing the actions of the Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office when he represented a distribution company that was the victim of a fraudulent scheme.
Helmer, of Helmer, Conley & Kasselman in Haddon Heights, was an assistant prosecutor in Cumberland County from 1985 to 1988, and was first assistant prosecutor in the office in 1988 and 1989. In 2009, he was retained by a Vineland company, National Freight Inc., which was under contract to make deliveries for a company called Trident. Trident bounced five checks totaling $158,000 to National Freight.
Trident went out of business in May 2008, prompting National Freight to file a civil suit against Trident and its principals seeking $3 million in damages. National Freight also signed a criminal complaint against Trident, but the Gloucester County Prosecutor’s Office declined to press charges. National Freight then retained Helmer to persuade the office to prosecute.
Helmer contacted Assistant Prosecutor David Branco, chief of the major crimes and organized crime bureau and a former colleague and friend. Branco assigned the case to G. Harrison Walters, a three-year veteran who had little experience with white-collar cases. Branco and Helmer “dominated” a meeting they held with National Freight’s officers, according to Walters, who also attended.
A plan was agreed on at the meeting that called for prosecutors to seek a sealed indictment against Trident’s two principals, who would be arrested by surprise. The office would request high bail amounts, alleging the bail money represented proceeds of a crime, and would see that the bail was used as restitution for National Freight.
Other creditors forced Trident into involuntary bankruptcy in September 2008, and the civil suit was dismissed.
The high-bail plan could have allowed National Freight to recover funds outside of the bankruptcy. But detectives for the prosecutor’s office refused to carry out the arrests.
In June 2009, based on testimony of Helmer as the sole witness, a Cumberland County grand jury indicted Trident and two principals, James Land Jr. and Michael Pessiki.
The criminal case was ultimately dismissed with prejudice in August 2010. In 2011, Land and Pessiki sued Helmer in federal court for malicious prosecution, but that case was thrown out in 2012.
The prosecutor’s office fired Branco, who is now with Helmer’s firm, and suspended Walters for six weeks without pay. The office also referred Helmer to the Office of Attorney Ethics. The Disciplinary Review Board charged him with conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.
But Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote for the court Wednesday that the record does not support the claims. The ultimate decisions were made by the prosecutors, and it’s not inappropriate for a private attorney to make a presentation to the prosecutor’s office on behalf of a victim, the court ruled.
The OAE said Helmer drafted the indictment, but the record revealed he made detailed recommendations about what he felt the indictment should allege, according to the court. The prosecutor’s office relied heavily on those suggestions.
“We cannot conclude from the record that Helmer improperly induced the line prosecutor to act,” the court said.
Having a victim’s attorney appear as the sole witness before a grand jury is “highly unusual,” the court said, given his lack of firsthand knowledge of the case. “But the prosecutor, not private counsel, ultimately made the unorthodox decision to proceed in that way,” the court said.
Patricia Quelch of Helmer Conley represented Helmer before the Supreme Court. She said Helmer is “very happy that he was vindicated by the dismissal” of the ethics charges. Helmer conceded in court that “he would have handled some things differently” in the case, Quelch said.
Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae declined to comment.