Last week the media was abuzz with the allegations made against the National Enquirer by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and the owner of The Washington Post. The details in Bezos’ blog post about his ongoing dispute with the Enquirer and its publisher David Pecker are sensationalistic to say the least: the world’s richest man being allegedly blackmailed by people working for Pecker (a long-time friend and supporter of President Trump), with threats to publish “compromising” photos of Bezos unless he backed off his investigation of the tabloid. Here is some reporting on the story.
Part of the interest arises because Bezos alleges that the threat was delivered, in part, by an attorney working for the Enquirer. A Law360 article on the situation says “Bezos’ published account of how a general counsel and others at the American Media Inc.-owned paper allegedly tried to blackmail him does appear to describe a violation of state and federal statutes, ethics and white collar specialists said.”
While there may be a debate as to whether these were just hard negotiations or discussions that crossed the line into blackmail, it at least appears that the lawyers involved might have allowed themselves to get close to the line, even if not over it.
Zeal … or trouble
When zealously representing your clients, it can be easy to forget that zeal cannot be the basis for doing things that break the law or undermine the legal system. For example:
- In some states, threatening to file criminal charges against a potential defendant in order to obtain a civil settlement is treated as extortion, including when the threat is made by counsel attempting to recoup stolen assets. An ABA Litigation article on the general subject is here.
- As the New York statute does, many states make it a crime to compel a person “by means of instilling in him or her a fear” that if a demand is not met the threatener will “expose a secret or publicize an asserted fact, whether true or false, tending to subject some person to hatred, contempt or ridicule.”
- Obstruction of justice in the course of representing a client was the undoing of some of the lawyers involved in Watergate. (See here for a take on Watergate’s legal ethics legacy by John Dean and our partner Jim Robenalt.)
- Lawyers have faced ethics charges for going too far in public statements about their clients’ cases, in violation of the many different state versions of Model Rule 3.6 (“Trial Publicity”).
- It can be an ethical violation under Model Rule 3.3(a)(2) if you fail to make a court aware of binding precedent that is directly adverse to your client’s position.
Knowing where zeal ends and unlawful or unethical conduct begins is the best way to keep yourself (and your client) out of trouble. And don’t let an echo-chamber do you in. Getting a reality check from someone not involved in the situation can sometimes help avoid problems. Remember, under Model Rule 1.6(b)(4), you are permitted to reveal information relating to the client’s representation to the extent you reasonably believe necessary to secure advice about your compliance with the Rules of Professional Conduct, opening the way for getting good ethics advice.