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.

Do we need another reminder about the perils of posting internet comments on cases and matters we are connected with?  Apparently we do, and here’s a strong one.  Earlier this month, an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana was disbarred based on hundreds of comments he posted pseudonymously on the website of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.  The posts included many related to high-profile cases he or his colleagues in the U.S. Attorney’s office were prosecuting, including government bribery scandals and the killing of two unarmed residents by the police following Hurricane Katrina.

In its opinion, the Louisiana Supreme Court wrote that the lawyer’s “extrajudicial comments about pending cases” struck at “the foundation of our system.”  The court felt compelled to “send a strong message … that a lawyer’s ethical obligations are not diminished by the mask of anonymity provided by the internet.”

The hearing panel had recommended a two-year suspension, with one year deferred. The court, however, adopted the disciplinary board’s disbarment recommendation, which in the Bayou State entitles a lawyer to petition for reinstatement after five years.

“GUILTY as charged!”

The lawyer was a prolific poster on the newspaper’s internet site, using a number of pseudonyms to comment about pending cases he or his office was involved in.  For instance, during a bribery trial he prosecuted, the lawyer posted that the defendant’s lawyer “has screwed his client!!!!,” continuing that “You’re just as arrogant as [the allegedly bribed official] … and the jury knows it.”

During the federal trial of six police officers for the shooting of unarmed residents on the Danziger Bridge, and the ensuing cover-up, the lawyer posted, “Perhaps we would be safer if the NOPD would leave next hurricane and let the National Guard assume all law enforcement duties.  GUILTY AS CHARGED.”

The lawyer’s posts connected to the Danziger Bridge trial came to light after the six officers were found guilty and received lengthy sentences.  Following an investigation, the lawyer’s conduct was cited as one aspect of a pattern of prosecutorial misconduct that prompted the grant of the officers’ motion for new trial and eventually a plea bargain for much lighter sentences.

Not the way to relieve stress

The lawyer stipulated that his conduct violated Louisiana’s versions of Model Rules 3.6 (trial publicity); 3.8(f) (prosecutors’ extra-judicial comments); 8.4(a) (violating rules of professional conduct) and 8.4(d) (conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice).

But at the disciplinary hearing, although acknowledging his misconduct, the lawyer testified that he thought his posts would help him deal with the stress of his work.  His treating psychologist opined that the lawyer suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from his past work as a police officer and FBI agent, during which he had witnessed gruesome scenes and personally had come under gunfire.

In imposing a sanction, the court rejected PTSD as a mitigating factor.  Although the psychologist testified that the online posts were the result of the lawyer’s PTSD, the court found no clear and convincing support for the conclusion that there was a causal link between the posts and the lawyer’s mental condition.

Key to that determination, said the court, was the lawyer’s own admission that he knew he should not be posting his comments online, and that it was his anger over public corruption that led him to vent his pseudonymous criticism.

Think before you click submit

We all feel the stress of our chosen profession.  But is the relief valve of venting it in public (even anonymously) worth the risk of professional discipline?  Keeping a private journal (locked in your drawer) may not be as satisfying as seeing your words up in pixels, but it’s surely safer from a licensing standpoint.