Colorado Moves to Suspend Ohio Lawyer Who Ratted Out Clients

Last week I wrote about Ohio criminal defense lawyer Frank Pignatelli, who according to news reports in Ohio, was about to get indicted in a drug case and got himself off the hook by ratting out his clients, which resulted in Ohio obtaining 30 convictions. One former client got 15 years.

I was not happy to learn Pignatelli moved to Colorado, obtained a law license and was representing defendants in federal drug cases.

Apparently, either was the Colorado disciplinary counsel. They have issued a press release advising that they have taken action against Pignatelli to suspend his license in Colorado because of allegedly fraudulent statements in his application. Fox31 Denver has the report. [More...]

Yesterday afternoon, I received a copy of the press release, but didn't want to post it until it was reported in the news. Now that the news has picked up on the story, here is what it says:

Colorado Supreme Court
Attorney Regulation Counsel


Colorado Supreme Court Office of Attorney Regulation files petition to suspend Francis (Frank) M. Pignatelli

DENVER – The Colorado Supreme Court Office of Attorney Regulation today announced that it has filed a petition to immediately suspend Colorado lawyer Francis (Frank) M. Pignatelli from the practice of law. The petition is now pending before Supreme Court Presiding Disciplinary Judge William Lucero.

The petition alleges that Mr. Pignatelli committed fraud when applying to the Colorado Bar in 2006. It is alleged that Mr. Pignatelli failed to disclose that he was subject of a federal criminal investigation in Ohio and that the federal authorities had informed him that they had sufficient information to charge him with federal crimes. Further, that Mr. Pignatelli had agreed to act as a confidential informant against individuals who believed that they had an attorney-client relationship with him.
Mr. Pignatelli will be served with the petition and if a show cause order is issued by Judge Lucero he will have 10 days within which to respond.

The Office of Attorney Regulation is proceeding with attorney discipline charges related to the petition.

Questions may be directed to Supreme Court Regulation Counsel John S. Gleason at 303-xxx-xxxx.

And here's a big surprise (not): In the wake of the Ohio news articles last week, Pignatelli has left his Colorado clients high and dry. Although he did right by one client:

The woman who paid 5,000 dollars finally got a call this afternoon from Pignatelli. She got an apology, and her money back. But it took numerous calls from her, and from Fox31. "I think that had something to do with it, putting pressure on him really," she said of our calls.

Of all the states in the country, he had to pick mine. Goodbye, Mr. Pignatelli. Criminal defense lawyers work for their clients, not law enforcement. If he gets another license elsewhere, maybe he should apply for a job with the D.A.'s office. Or, better yet, stick to wills and estates.

As I wrote in the earlier post:

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.

(You can get your's here.)

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    Good for Colorado, but don't send him (5.00 / 1) (#3)
    by scribe on Thu Feb 05, 2009 at 03:06:56 AM EST
    over to wills, trusts and estates and realty.  Those are a fountain of cash presenting a temptation - "dip into me" - which those inclined to such weakness can rarely resist.  
    It seems almost weekly one reads about someone or other who dipped into escrow.

    And then successor counsel has to watch the ripped off people cry because (s)he's telling them their house is gone, or their mother's estate (that she'd been saving for the grandkids' college) has been looted or whatever, all so some guy with a gambling (or other) jones can get a couple thrills.

    Good News (none / 0) (#1)
    by squeaky on Thu Feb 05, 2009 at 02:10:35 AM EST
    FOr Colorado, wonder where he will try to practice next.

    Ironic that he held his tongue when it came to his own crimes and that is what did him in.

    What about the Ohio defendants? (none / 0) (#4)
    by ytterby on Thu Feb 05, 2009 at 07:40:39 AM EST
    I would think that having their attorney act as informant would taint the investigation. Are any of his former clients appealing their convictions? And is there any hope of success?

    I long ago gave up hope of having prosecutors face punitive measures for obvious ethical (and perhaps legal) violations like this.

    I'm confused (none / 0) (#5)
    by Steve M on Thu Feb 05, 2009 at 08:15:50 AM EST
    There's still something I don't get about this story.  Was the guy engaged in a criminal conspiracy with some of his clients, and when he got caught he ratted out his fellow conspirators/clients, or did the cases where he cooperated with the Feds have nothing to do with the stuff he originally got busted for?

    according to the news article (none / 0) (#7)
    by Jeralyn on Thu Feb 05, 2009 at 08:56:15 AM EST
    his client Chevaisee Robinson, age 30, got 15 years. Also, it says:

    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.

    ...Pignatelli's decision to turn on his clients and cooperate with law enforcement ''still leaves a bad taste in my mouth,'' Robinson's attorney, James Campbell, said Friday. (my emphasis)

    I guess what I'm saying (none / 0) (#8)
    by Steve M on Thu Feb 05, 2009 at 09:06:09 AM EST
    is that if I go around robbing banks with my lawyer, I don't really have the right to rely on the attorney-client relationship to protect disclosure of what we're doing.  On the other hand, if I'm accused of robbing banks on my own, I certainly don't expect my defense lawyer to help get me convicted just because he has a separate criminal matter where he wants leniency.

    If the guy was, in fact, involved in a criminal drug conspiracy with some of his clients, I don't really see how they could reasonably expect to be protected by the attorney-client privilege.  What's being disclosed is drug dealing, not the contents of legal advice.  But I'm still unclear as to whether that's the actual fact pattern.


    for me it's a letter vs. spirit thing (5.00 / 1) (#9)
    by txpublicdefender on Thu Feb 05, 2009 at 09:40:36 AM EST
    I think your general understanding of what happened is correct, but I'd put it in context a different way.  I think he was acting as an attorney for these people, but during his representation, he crossed the line into becoming a co-conspirator.  As a legal matter, I'm guessing that he is in the clear since you are correct that conversations that involve conspiring to commit crimes are not privileged.  That said, 99% of defense attorneys I know would view this type of behavior to be repugnant--to actively participate in the investigation of your clients in order to save yourself from the consequences of your own criminal wrongdoing.

    One thing I'm interested in with regards to the Colorado bar complaint is whether he'll rely on some defense that he was not permitted to disclose those things because he was working confidentially with federal law enforcement.  I wonder if the DOJ will try to come to his rescue.  I hope the Colorado bar doesn't fall for it.

    Even if the Colorado bar were taking the pro-law enforcement stance, he still seems unworthy of a law license.  An attorney who actively became involved in a criminal conspiracy with his clients shouldn't be actively practicing law.  Frankly, I'm shocked that the prosecutors didn't make his giving up his law license (at least for a period of years) a condition of his cooperation agreement.


    I think you hit the nail (5.00 / 1) (#12)
    by Jeralyn on Thu Feb 05, 2009 at 10:40:32 AM EST
    on the head with this:

    That said, 99% of defense attorneys I know would view this type of behavior to be repugnant--to actively participate in the investigation of your clients in order to save yourself from the consequences of your own criminal wrongdoing.

    Thanks (none / 0) (#14)
    by Steve M on Thu Feb 05, 2009 at 05:49:28 PM EST
    That helps me understand the context better.

    what defense lawyers find repugnant? (none / 0) (#15)
    by diogenes on Thu Feb 05, 2009 at 09:22:23 PM EST
    Maybe the group surveyed should be lawyers in general, judges in general, or the general population?
    To an outsider like me, this isn't so different from offering immunity to any crook to get information on others.  

    me too. (none / 0) (#6)
    by cpinva on Thu Feb 05, 2009 at 08:32:34 AM EST
    I'm confused

    i would think, absent evidence that he was engaged in criminal activity with the clients he gave up, that any information he gave to the feds would be barred in court, since the clients didn't waive their privilage. i would think. unless, of course, the prosecution failed to disclose the source of that information.

    this just sounds like a total clusterf*ck to me.

    why do i feel like, now that this whole thing has been exposed in public, all those cases are going to start falling apart?

    maybe it's just wishful thinking on my part.

    A Bar inquiry was the first thing I thought of. (none / 0) (#10)
    by Joelarama on Thu Feb 05, 2009 at 09:51:04 AM EST
    But, really, I'm surprised the National Council of Bar Examiners didn't catch this on their vaunted character and fitness background check when he applied to the Colorado Bar.  Seems a simple Google search would have revealed this information, or at least enough information to warrant follow-up questions.  

    privilege scope (none / 0) (#11)
    by rea on Thu Feb 05, 2009 at 10:32:39 AM EST
    The attorney client privilege does not extend to conversations about future crimes.  I always try to explain that to my criminal defense clients, so that they don't put us in an awkward position, and the one time it looked like a client of mine was going to go there in one of our conversations, I shut him up before he stepped over the line and told him why.  This guy's sins were not warning the client that such discussions were nonprivileged, participating in the commission of crimes, and pretending to be acting as an attorney when he was really a government agent.

    Snitch? (none / 0) (#13)
    by Socraticsilence on Thu Feb 05, 2009 at 01:04:12 PM EST
    While I completely agree with suspending the Lawyer (just a gross violation of his ethical obligations- he either crossed the line into criminal action and the crossed it again to betray privelege or he  simply ratted) the stop snitching bear is one of those things that disgust me, the whole stop snitching movement is basically a call for the abandonement of justice and the embrace of criminality.