A New Jersey lawyer is facing a three-month suspension of his license for pledging in 2007 to use a concocted connection to Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff to get lenient treatment for a client in a criminal case.
Gerald Saluti’s boast that he would prevail on Chertoff to open “the appropriate door” at the Department of Justice to arrange a deal for the client was a “gross exaggeration,” the Disciplinary Review Board said in an opinion made public Tuesday.
Saluti, a Newark solo, represented Peter Bragnasa, who in 2007 was charged with 17 others in a $126 million scheme to sell prescription drugs online.
According to the DRB opinion, he said he was “lucky enough to have been introduced” to Chertoff—who once practiced in Newark—through a mutual acquaintance, Kevin Marino, who rented office space from Chertoff, and that he had met Chertoff “multiple times” while visiting Marino’s office.
Saluti allegedly never spoke with Chertoff about the case or made contacts in Washington, D.C., on Bragnasa’s behalf; falsely claimed that settlement negotiations were going on for two years; and misled Bragnasa about his services and the status of the case.
In addition, Saluti accepted a fee even though Bragnasa was being represented by a court-appointed attorney.
The DRB said Saluti arranged with Bragnasa to act only as a “consultant,” so eligibility for a court-appointed attorney would not be jeopardized, and falsely told Bragnasa’s attorney in the criminal case, Marc Carlos, that he was retained to represent Bragnasa’s family.
As late as March 2009, Saluti said in an email to Bragnasa that he was still trying to pursue a cooperation agreement for him, when he was not doing so, the DRB said.
Saluti’s involvement in Bragnasa’s case continued until the start of the criminal trial in April 2009 in San Diego.
The trial ran several months before ending in a mistrial. Bragnasa pleaded guilty to a reduced charge and was sentenced to one year of probation in February 2010.
Marino, now with Newark’s Marino, Tortorella & Boyle, says he knows Saluti from the early 1990s, when both worked at the Newark firm of Robinson, Wayne, Levin, Riccio & LaSala—Marino as an associate and Saluti as a law clerk.
Marino says he is friendly with Chertoff and rented office space from him. He adds that he might have introduced Saluti to Chertoff but doesn’t remember doing so.
Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security from 2005 to 2009 and now with Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C., says, “I don’t know him [Saluti] or anything about this.”
The DRB found Saluti violated Rules of Professional Conduct 1.5(b), charging an unreasonable fee; 3.3(a)(5), failing to disclose a material fact, knowing it could mislead; 7.1(a)(1) and (a)(2), making false communications about his services; 8.1(b), failing to respond to a demand for information from a disciplinary authority; and 8.4(a),(c) and (d), engaging in conduct involving deceit or misrepresentation or prejudicial to the administration of justice.
The DRB also found that Saluti failed to cooperate with the District VA Ethics Committee’s investigation for failing to respond to an investigator’s letters, which he admitted receiving.
The DRB, citing Saluti’s two past admonitions and a reprimand, recommended a three-month suspension in a 6-1 vote on Nov. 4. Maurice Gallipoli, a former Hudson County assignment judge, favored a six-month suspension.
The Supreme Court has final say in the case.
Saluti’s lawyer, Thomas Scrivo of McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter in Morristown, says he will appeal the DRB’s recommendation.
Scrivo notes that the board failed to consider his client’s assertion that he made no promises about the outcome of his representation.
Saluti was admonished in 2007 for a breakdown in communications with a client and in 2012 for failing to communicate to a client the basis of his fee.
This past June, he was reprimanded for failing to cooperate with ethics investigators by not answering three letters about a grievance, after having said a reply was forthcoming. ■