The National Law Journal Turns to Manatt Partner on Prominent Attorney’s Indictment
“Fighting to Keep His License”The National Law Journal
November 21, 2011 – The National Law Journal turned to Manatt’s Kenneth B. Julian, a partner in the firm’s Litigation Division, for insight into the ongoing saga of legal troubles of famed plaintiffs’ attorney Pierce O’Donnell.
The National Law Journal reports that O’Donnell, who’s well known for his successful representation of plaintiffs in high-profile class action suits, was indicted in 2008 on three federal felony counts of reimbursing people who made monetary contributions to the 2004 presidential campaign of former U.S. Sen. John Edwards. In 2009, a U.S. District Court judge dismissed two of the charges, with the third charge dropped. The prosecutors appealed the dismissal, and the judge’s decision has since been reversed by the Ninth Circuit.
At risk of losing his license to practice law, O’Donnell entered into a plea deal with prosecutors, agreeing to plead guilty to two misdemeanor counts, serve six months in prison, one year of supervised release and 200 hours of community service, and pay a $20,000 fine. The deal would allow him to retain his license, which can be revoked only by the State Bar of California if he is convicted of a felony or has acted with “moral turpitude per se.”
Julian said that it’s uncommon for the federal government to agree to a plea deal with a white-collar criminal that carries misdemeanor rather than felony penalties. Misdemeanors, he said, almost always result in no jail time. “Federal prosecutors in almost all circumstances want a felony conviction,” he said. “In this case, I think the defense attorneys did a good job of negotiating and they were able to get the U.S. Attorney’s Office to make a rare misdemeanor agreement.”
O’Donnell’s plea deal was also rejected by the judge, who has said that he thinks a sentence with a prison term is not justified. The prosecutors insisted on taking the case to trial, and a date has been set for January 31. If convicted, O’Donnell will have a felony on his record and may then be disbarred.
“What you’re witnessing is the separation of powers at work right there in the courtroom,” Julian said. “You’ve got the prosecution, which has the power to charge and select the charges and to recommend a sentence, but that’s all. And you’ve got the judge, who has the power to impose a sentence and the power to dismiss charges on certain legal grounds if they exist, but really does not have the power to charge.”
But the government is also defending a principle, said Julian. “They’re trying to vindicate their view of the seriousness of the conduct. If they can’t get jail time, they will try for a felony.”
He added, “For the defense, this is all about keeping the license. From O’Donnell’s perspective, he would rather get a misdemeanor, do his six months and keep his law license. That’s what his goal was.”
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