Drug Lawyer Turns Informant, Stings Clients

This is an amazing story. Frank Pignatelli was a criminal defense attorney representing drug defendants in Akron Ohio. He got busted for helping his clients buy stash houses and faced a criminal indictment.

According to court records, Pignatelli was facing his own indictment as a co-conspirator when he agreed to work undercover for federal drug investigators more than three years ago.

With Pignatelli's help, federal agents have arrested 30 people from Akron and Cleveland, and seized hundreds of pounds of marijuana and cocaine, along with cash and property totaling more than $3 million.

He turned informant, and made 30 cases for the Government, including some against his clients. The latest defendant, a former client of his, got 15 years in prison.

Pignatelli got his own case dismissed in exchange for his cooperation. He's still got a law license. He moved his practice to, of all places, Denver (I've never heard of him before today.) In fact, he's representing defendants in federal court, including those charged in drug cases. [More...]

If he weren't practicing in my town, I'd have a lot more to say. For now, let me just opine that a lawyer who turns on his own clients hits a new low. Or in the words of Bon Jovi,

Shot through the heart

and you're to blame

You give love a bad name.

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    Heinous. n/t (5.00 / 1) (#5)
    by Plutonium Page on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 05:28:33 PM EST

    Slow down and look at the issues (5.00 / 1) (#25)
    by Peter G on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 09:21:07 PM EST
    Here's how I see it.  For those who like me should know the applicable rules, please tell me if you disagree.  (1) Apparently Mr. P has admitted that while holding himself out as a defense attorney, he entered into a  criminal (conspiratorial) relationship with a number of his clients to launder drug proceeds and to buy properties to be used as stash houses.  At least 3 serious crimes right there.  (2) As soon as his clients and he entered into this ongoing criminal relationship, the clients' communications with him were no longer privileged (crime-fraud exception), and he also acquired at least two related conflicts of interest (witness to their criminal conduct, and grave potential for each to become a witness against the other) that prevented him from being their lawyer.  (3) So, while turning witness against former "clients" once caught does look very unseemly, it is not a violation of the privilege or of any (legitimate) professional relationship.  (4) The clients, however, may have a claim that while he was "representing" them, they actually were without the effective assistance of counsel, since effective assistance requires an absence of disqualifying conflicts of interest.  A judge, however, would probably deem their ongoing, eyes-open criminal conduct with him to be a sort of waiver of that claim).  (5) Since he has these potential criminal charges hanging over his head, and thus an incentive to stay in the good graces of Ohio state and federal authorities for at least the next five years (statute of limitations), it seems to me he has an ongoing conflict of interest that prevents him now from representing and rendering effective assistance to any other criminal defendant, in Ohio or otherwise.  Nor do I understand how he could be in good standing with the Ohio Bar (due to the nature of the conduct he admitted, whether or not he was prosecuted for it), and thus how he could have acquired a license in Colorado.  Your thoughts, TL?  TChris?  Other defenders who are reading this?

    Oh, yes. No doubt (5.00 / 1) (#28)
    by JamesTX on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 10:57:09 PM EST
    everything changes when the lawyer gets involved, but the point here isn't legal technicalities. It's the reputation of the profession. This stinks, even if it is legal. This is a rotten lawyer. In fact, using the term lawyer in the vernacular, he ain't one. Not because he did something illegal. That might even make him a better defense lawyer. It is because he intentionally harmed clients. Legal or not, the Bon Jovi clip captures the point. We know you guys know the law better than us. That is why we hire you. When you use your superior knowledge against us, all the while telling us you are helping us (not to mention those fees), there is no amount of legal theory that can erase the smell.

    While there is nothing 'funny-haha' (none / 0) (#31)
    by oldpro on Mon Jan 26, 2009 at 01:54:56 AM EST
    about this case, for some reason it makes me recall one of my favorite comedic British plays, The Dock Brief., wherein the guilty client gets off because his lawyer is an incompetent fool.

    Lawyer breaking the law (none / 0) (#35)
    by nyjets on Mon Jan 26, 2009 at 07:30:50 AM EST
    "Not because he did something illegal. That might even make him a better defense lawyer"

    SO to be a better defense lawyer, you should break the law.IOW, the defense lawyer should become a criminal themselves?


    None of the lawyers on this list (none / 0) (#36)
    by Peter G on Mon Jan 26, 2009 at 07:54:42 AM EST
    said anything like that.  I'm not sure what "JamesTX" meant by that comment, but it isn't correct at all.  Maybe he was trying to be ironic, or to make a joke of some kind.

    Yes, that (none / 0) (#42)
    by JamesTX on Mon Jan 26, 2009 at 08:59:17 PM EST
    was in jest, as suggested by Peter G. I probably should be more careful. In order to be effective with that style of irony, such statements should not require the reader to have work too hard to get it. My statement was a little too matter-of-fact. My humor is often too idiosyncratic. Especially when trying to employ tricks, good writing requires careful pragmatic effort and skill.

    The idea here was that any crime the guy did is much less important than the ethics failure. Lawyers are people, and people sometimes break laws. The obligation to act in the best interest of clients is sacred. It's more important than the law. It's not just a lawyer thing. It's about doing honest and moral work that you have promised to a highly vulnerable person. Violating it is the cruelest thing you can do to a person, and it is devastating to the reputation of your profession. Ultimately, the whole basis of professional value to the public is that sacred fiduciary duty. Think of how you would feel about the doctor's duty when you are paralyzed in the surgical suite. The legal role is just as important. We non-lawyers really, really believe you are working in our best interest, and we should be able to do so without doubt. There may be perfectly good loopholes to get out of it, but to take advantage of those is repulsive...and maybe less than human. Taking advantage of people is bad, but sometimes it happens. Taking a bite out of the soft underbelly of a client who you have promised to help, and who has thus lowered their defenses in the expectation of due care is...psychopathic.


    I agree with your analysis (none / 0) (#27)
    by befuddledvoter on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 10:41:58 PM EST
    His cooperation must have been absolutely superb.  I know he would have to disclose all on his CO bar application. I am admitted there and recall that the application was arduous, unlike what I had previously filled in for Mass.  I think it was part of his deal that he would get a clean slate.  Jeralyn, is the bar application there public record??  

    1.  Once the crim conspiracy started the statements were not really privileged if the attorney was involved.

    2. There could never have been effective assistance of counsel while the attorney was cooperating, assuming the representation was for criminal defense of someone charged with a crime and not for the purpose of structuring a criminal enterprise.

    The whole thing sickens me.  Since he was seen  in federal court on a crim matter, was that an appointed case? Tell me he is not on the CJA list there?  If he is, how the hell did that happen?

    I am all for people having a second chance but him doing criminal defense is out of the question.  Why doesn't he do some other area of law?  


    To clarify a little (none / 0) (#37)
    by Peter G on Mon Jan 26, 2009 at 08:04:29 AM EST
    When the lawyer started participating in some of his clients' ongoing criminal activity, the communications he had with the those clients for that purpose stopped  being privileged.  His job as a criminal defense lawyer is only to protect each client's rights as an accused person within the system.  If he was representing other clients within the rules of law, those clients continued to have a right to insist on confidentiality and privilege. As I understood the story, the only clients against whom he "cooperated" were those whose co-conspirator he had become by knowingly laundering proceeds in real estate deals.  I didn't read that he became a witness against any other clients.  If that interpretation is incorrect, then it's a whole different kettle of fish.

    Spread The Word (none / 0) (#1)
    by squeaky on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 04:38:54 PM EST
    How can the guy face himself, and how can anyone trust him anymore.  

    Seriously damaged goods.

    I found the story on a message board (5.00 / 1) (#2)
    by Jeralyn on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 04:40:51 PM EST
    for defense lawyers. I think the word is out.

    What about the unaware defendants? (none / 0) (#8)
    by inclusiveheart on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 06:02:31 PM EST
    God forbid he was your defense attorney.  

    I'm glad I had a different (none / 0) (#26)
    by daryl herbert on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 10:28:12 PM EST
    defense attorney handle my stash house.

    If you can't trust a crooked attorney to keep your stash house a secret, who can you trust?

    Seriously, this is a good thing--now crooks will be less willing to trust their attorneys to commit crimes on their behalf.

    That having been said, Colorado is insane to let this guy keep practicing law.  Whether or not he cooperated like a good American citizen doesn't wipe away the fact that he committed serious crimes as an attorney.  Anyone who ever informs on a client in order to reduce his own sentence should be automatically forever prohibited from practicing law.  What are they smoking over there in Colorado?


    Not A Lawyer (none / 0) (#3)
    by daring grace on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 05:21:03 PM EST
    So I'm not sure about these things but isn't there something in the canon of ethics about breaking your clients' confidentiality especially to their detriment?

    Surely this demands some kinds of professional discipline or do those kinds of disciplinary actions stop at the state line--i.e. in Ohio and not in other states where a lawyer decided to move his/her practice?

    I'm from Akron, Ohio and (none / 0) (#4)
    by GeorgiaE on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 05:25:47 PM EST
    When I read this article this morning,in our local Akron Beacon Journal, I almost chocked on my coffee..I remeber a few of these cases. I don't condone drug dealing, but could this lawyer's handling of his clients cases be treated as entrapment?  Is what he did legal? The newspaper article blew me away...He should not be allowed to practice law any place..Who in the world will hire him?  He's a snitch!!! I wonder how much he charged them for his "legal services"

    Akron, Ohio has had numerous (none / 0) (#6)
    by GeorgiaE on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 05:38:09 PM EST
    "justified" killings of Black men lately...Some citizens in our AA community recently marched to the local NAACP office demanding answers..The police chief recently "walked off" the job..!!?? Keep an eye on my "city", things are looking pretty bad here..

    Lawyers are humans too (none / 0) (#7)
    by SOS on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 05:51:40 PM EST
    Hell Lawrence R. Velvel, Dean of the Massachusetts School of Law was a Madoff investor.

    Some Lawyers are great, some are crooks, some are probably stupid.

    Personally I've always admired mavericks like Gerry Spence.

    Since Madoff was a con man ... (none / 0) (#15)
    by cymro on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 07:08:57 PM EST
    ... what is your point? Madoff conned plenty of innocent investors.

    "innocent" investors? (none / 0) (#23)
    by Fabian on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 08:19:01 PM EST
    What does one have to do to be deemed a "guilty" investor?

    Innocent has other meanings (none / 0) (#29)
    by cymro on Mon Jan 26, 2009 at 12:48:45 AM EST
    Definition: Innocent

    In this context, the opposite of innocent is sophisticated.


    I love accuracy. (5.00 / 1) (#34)
    by Fabian on Mon Jan 26, 2009 at 04:55:05 AM EST
    "naive" would be the closest.  However, many of Madoff's investors weren't naive or unsophisticated.  Some of them were experienced professionals in finance and investment.

    The essence of a confidence scheme isn't the technique or the actual mechanism.  It's not the forebrain, the rational part, the superego.  It's about the emotional part, the ego that is the target of a confidence operation.  It's about belief and faith and trust.  Like religion or politics.

    As Terry Pratchett taught me in "Going Postal", the simplest way to con people isn't to fool them.  You just help them to fool themselves.  If you use that model, it doesn't matter how educated, experienced or sophisticated someone is - because they'll be using all those assets against themselves.

    They do all the work for you!  It's brilliant.


    Pignatelli (none / 0) (#9)
    by SOS on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 06:08:12 PM EST
    is going to have to live a very careful life from here on out.

    That's obvious.

    Drug lawyer . . . (none / 0) (#10)
    by Doc Rock on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 06:11:24 PM EST
    . . . Canon of Ethics?

    Short for (none / 0) (#11)
    by Jeralyn on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 06:17:39 PM EST
    drug defense lawyer, a lawyer who defends clients charged with drug offenses.

    How the h*ll (none / 0) (#12)
    by SOS on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 06:32:03 PM EST
    do lawyers defend clients they know damn well are probably guilty.

    That alone sounds like a perfect enough excuse to start using drugs to "numb out reality".

    defending people (5.00 / 2) (#13)
    by killer on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 06:36:18 PM EST
    even guilty people deserve access to their rights, including a competent defense.

    Your right (none / 0) (#14)
    by SOS on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 06:50:33 PM EST
    Otherwise Frontier Justice would be the rule.

    Right to counsel. Presumption of (none / 0) (#16)
    by Joelarama on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 07:12:09 PM EST
    innocence.  Pretty basic stuff.

    Incredible. (none / 0) (#17)
    by Joelarama on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 07:13:07 PM EST
    And, what does the Colorado Bar have to say about this?

    They admitted him in June, 2007 (none / 0) (#18)
    by Jeralyn on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 07:21:19 PM EST
    and he has no disciplinary history in Colorado, according to the Colorado Supreme Court's website.

    Why do I think he's going to wind up (none / 0) (#19)
    by scribe on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 07:35:11 PM EST
    not being one of the counsel on multi-defendant cases?

    Something that reads like no right-thinking defense lawyer is likely to enter into a joint* defense arrangement with a proven snitch who sold out his own clients to save his hide.

    And every one of his clients who happens to be convicted is likely to raise an ineffective assistance claim - they didn't feel they could confide in him b/c of his history (for starters)....


    * Don't go there.  No pun, intended or otherwise.

    In some countries this is a crime (none / 0) (#20)
    by Andreas on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 07:35:29 PM EST
    In some countries this is a severe crime.

    § 356 German Criminal Code:

    Violating the attorney-client relationship

    (1) An attorney or other person rendering legal assistance who in relation to matters confided to him in this capacity in the same legal matter serves both parties with counsel and assistance in breach of his duty shall be liable to imprisonment from three months to five years.

    (2) If the offender acts in collusion with the opposing party to the detriment of his client the penalty shall be imprisonment from one year to five years.

    fortunately for him, (none / 0) (#21)
    by cpinva on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 07:53:22 PM EST
    denver isn't in germany.

    the issue goes beyond this one individual; how do i know that my attorney isn't in collusion with the local police?

    the bottom line: i don't.

    this is going to be a major problem for defense counsel everywhere, and courts as well. consider public defenders; how am i to know they aren't secretly working with the police? again, i don't.


    Or even that those reporters (none / 0) (#30)
    by oldpro on Mon Jan 26, 2009 at 01:15:51 AM EST
    aren't in the CIA?

    Oh wait...they were.


    oh wait......... (none / 0) (#33)
    by cpinva on Mon Jan 26, 2009 at 03:59:26 AM EST
    Oh wait...they were.

    they were!

    bottom line: trust no one.


    wait a minute (none / 0) (#22)
    by diogenes on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 08:04:26 PM EST
    If he broke attorney-client privilege, then we'll probably see these 30 convictions appealed to the Supreme Court and reversed at some point.
    If what he did was technically within the law (and thus unable to be appealed), then blame the lawyers who write the laws or the judges who interpret them.

    It happened to me (none / 0) (#24)
    by Yes2Truth on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 09:05:24 PM EST
    I was set up by a friend (sic) who engaged in a conspiracy with agents of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics.

    Naively, I hired a local attorney on the "advice" of Madison County sheriff's officers prior to being bailed out.

    My attorney pressured me to plead guilty by scaring me into believing that if I contested the charges, I would almost certainly be sent to the state penitentiary for five years.

    At the time, I did not know that I had been entrapped thru a conspiracy.  I only thought that I was delivering sealed gallon cans of motorcyle paint to a friend of his.  Due to a recent shoulder operation, I was unable to even lift the cans into the trunk of my car and I had no reason to try and pry any of the cans open to see if they really did contain only paint.

    My friend had borrowed money from me right after my surgery and he kept stalling on paying me back and finally told me that if I would do him the favor of delivering an order of paint to a customer of his in Mississippi (my "friend" owns Thurmond Supply Co. in Houston), the cost of the paint would pretty much cover what I was owed.  The "paint" turned out to be marijuana.

    For those who might be skeptical of what I'm saying, keep in mind that prior to my hospitalization and surgery, I had NOT seen my friend in about two years time and I had no idea what he had been up to during the interim or since.

    I'm almost certain that my lawyer sold me out, and NOT just because he was featured on 60 minutes in a segment about a corruption case that he was alleged to have been involved in.

    I was led to believe that I would receive a probation sentence which would be removed after successful completion of a five year probation.

    I now know that Mississippi does not have deferred adjudication. As a result, informed readers (here) know and understand the permanent damage I've suffered and will continue to suffer for the rest of my life.

    sorry, (none / 0) (#32)
    by cpinva on Mon Jan 26, 2009 at 03:57:11 AM EST
    but you wouldn't need to lift or open a can of "paint", to realize it wasn't liquid. unless these were 55 Gal. drums (and even then, i'd think you'd notice the difference), the odds are pretty good any reasonable person would have wondered exactly what was in those containers, since it clearly wasn't liquid.

    unless these were supposed to be cans of powdered paint mix, which you didn't note.


    I think we can drop... (none / 0) (#38)
    by kdog on Mon Jan 26, 2009 at 08:46:26 AM EST
    the "natelli" from this sob's last name.

    What a disgrace...and the fact he can still practice law is the biggest disgrace of all...he shouldn't be allowed within 50 feet of a defendent.

    It's a very slippery slope (none / 0) (#39)
    by Jeralyn on Mon Jan 26, 2009 at 10:32:49 AM EST
    As soon as I read the story, I was reminded of the 11th Circuit case U.S. v. Ofshe (opinion here) in which then AUSA Scott Turow used Chicago attorney Marvin Glass, then a suspect in Operation Graylord, to wear a wire against his client Richard Ofshe in exchange for leniency for his own crime. Turow  was smacked down for it in a footnote in the opinion. It seems Ofshe was in Florida and Turow didn't tell the Florida U.S. Attorney what he and Glass were doing.  The footnote reads:

    While we have not found the government's conduct sufficiently outrageous to warrant the dismissal of his Indictment, we do believe that Glass' and Turow's conduct was reprehensible. Because the district judge is more familiar with the attorneys' conduct, we assume he will refer this matter to The Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, 203 N. Wabash, Suite 1900, Chicago, Illinois 60601, for appropriate action.

    The appellate court ultimately upheld Ofshe's conviction.

    Glass was an interesting character...his wife during those years was Patti Glass, who divorced him and married Fred Goldman, father of Ron Goldman, killed along with Nicole Brown Simpson. Glass went on to commit more crimes, went to prison and died shortly after getting out.

    Here's the Government's view, from its response to Ofshe's petition for writ of cert:

    There is nothing inherently outrageous in using as an informant a co-conspirator who happens to be the target's defense attorney, so long as there is no attempt to intrude into a protected
    attorney-client relationship and no intrusion results.  It is not unknown for attorneys to engage in criminal conduct with or on behalf
    of their clients, and a law enforcement investigation of either or both parties does not automatically infringe a constitutionally
    protected relationship....

    To be sure, it is not usual that an attorney and co-conspirator becomes an informant against his client.  But if there is good reason to believe that the attorney is not currently engaged in the
    representation of his client on a pending charge or that a particular conversation between the two will touch on nothing but joint future crimes, and if the attorney is careful and under strict instructions to avoid intruding into attorney-client or defense strategy matters, treating the attorney like a cooperating co-conspirator does not "'shock() * * * the universal sense of justice'" ... And where the investigation does not produce any tainted evidence or influence in
    any way the ongoing prosecution -- indeed, where the prosecutor does not even know of the cooperation -- there is no resulting Sixth
    Amendment violation.

    More on that case here.

    Real life is much more interesting (none / 0) (#40)
    by Militarytracy on Mon Jan 26, 2009 at 01:25:43 PM EST
    than anything Fox can come up with.

    response to cpinva (none / 0) (#41)
    by Yes2Truth on Mon Jan 26, 2009 at 04:32:37 PM EST
    cpinva said:  

       "but you wouldn't need to lift or open a can of "paint", to realize it wasn't liquid. unless these were 55 Gal. drums (and even then, i'd think you'd notice the difference), the odds are pretty good any reasonable person would have wondered exactly what was in those containers, since it clearly wasn't liquid.

    unless these were supposed to be cans of powdered paint mix, which you didn't note."

    I guess I didn't make it clear that because I had a shoulder separation and my right arm was in a sling, I couldn't even lift something as relatively light as a gallon of paint.

    My "friend" loaded the cans in the trunk of my car.  At the time, I had no reason to question or doubt him that he was putting anything into my car other than what he said he was putting in it.

    If they had been see-through cans, then yes, I would have known what was in them. But they weren't.  They were regular (sealed) paint cans.

    Ask anyone who has suffered from a shoulder separation that was bad enough to require surgery.
    They'll tell you that a shoulder separation is one of the most painful injuries imaginable.

    In my case, I was unable to do much of anything with my right arm.  I couldn't even hold a book with it.