I try to keep my legal ethics seminars up-to-the-minute, so while preparing for yesterday’s session with the Appellate Section of the Indiana Bar, I came across a bunch of entertaining stories in which the ethics were a lot clearer than the law, or vice-versa. All of them could and perhaps should sustain separate posts; indeed, I could probably devote the blog entirely to such cases.
Here are my four favorites from the past week’s legal news, involving a mother-son lawsuit, a brazenly unethical attorney general, a college scoreboard named after a crook, and police officer’s sense of humor:
When Jordan Zeidman, now 20, was 13, his maternal grandmother crashed his bar mitzvah along with her daughter, Shirley Zeidman, who had split from Jordan’s father in a nasty divorce and had been banned from the festivities.
Jordan testified in Nassau County Small Claims Courts that “Baba,” as he called the grandmother, had told him, as his mother stood by, ‘I have $5,000 for you. Just like I gave to your brother and sister, and I’m going to give it to your mom to hold for you.’”
Jordan never saw the money. After repeatedly asking his mother for it and getting no response, he finally sued her. In a nine-page ruling, Nassau District Court Judge Scott Fairgrieve found Shirley liable for conversion and unjust enrichment, awarding Jordan a judgment for the $5,000 that his mom “held for [his] benefit and continues to hold, in violation of her fiduciary duty.”
I’d love to hear Shirley’s rationalizations for doing this. I bet she has dozens.
I know a few people who have sue their parents, and the all feel great regret and shame about it. I even have a visceral ethics alarm go off any time I hear about such a case: Sue your mother? Who bore you? To whom you owe your life?
That’s ick, though, not ethics. Jordan’s mother stole from him, and also breached her own mother’s trust. She’s the villain for making her son sue her.
Leaking grand jury testimony is both illegal and spectacularly unethical for a lawyer, yet Pennsylvania’s Attorney General, Kathleen Kane, appears to have done it for the slimiest of reasons, and is offering the most cynical of defenses in the most offensive of ways. (Incidentally, I don’t understand how this could happen. After all, Kane is a woman, the first Democrat and the first woman to be elected to the post, and since having a vagina alone is supposed to imbue a candidate with trustworthiness, surpassing competence and virtue, this makes no sense at all.)
After an extensive investigation, prosecutors believe Kane passed a transcript and memorandum related to a 2009 grand jury investigation to a Philadelphia Daily News reporter last year. The method: a top aide to Kane left a package containing the material between his front and screen doors, and a political consultant who helped Kane get elected picked up the package and delivered it to a Philadelphia Daily News reporter.
(Note please that the news media is permitted to undermine the justice system and to facilitate the crime of leaking sealed testimony by an elected official. Just because the First Amendment permits a newspaper to do this, however, doesn’t make it ethical, and indeed it is not.)
Kane also is charged with lying under oath about the leak during a grand jury investigation and ordering aides to illegally snoop through computer files to keep tabs on the investigation of her conduct. Kane told a grand jury last November that she had never seen the memo.
Her defenses are the smoke issuing from a charred and blackened superego. She testified last November she wasn’t subject to secrecy rules surrounding the 2009 grand jury investigation because she was never sworn in to that grand jury. That’s right: jurors couldn’t leak the information, but she could. Prosecutors are never sworn into the grand jury, because they aren’t jurors. They are trusted professionals. Her defense to the accusation that she leaked the information to smear her predecessor: That’s ridiculous! There were other ways to smear him.
Then she gave out this gem:
“My defense will not be that I am the victim of some old boys’ network,” she told reporters. “It will be that I broke no laws of the Commonwealth. Period.”
Ah, yes, the Hillary Clinton defense, plus the ever-green “I’m not going to mention a thing about my opponent being a gay, cannibalistic Communist; I’m above that sort of thing.”
It is obvious that Kane leaked the information; the only questions are whether she technically committed perjury, technically breached grand jury secrecy, and whether she will have the integrity to resign whether she is acquitted or not, having proved herself to be too dishonest to be a lawyer and too unethical to be a Attorney General.
On the latter, I’m guessing no.
Greedy California Polytechnic State University allowed businessman Al Moriarty to plaster a 53-foot “Moriarty Enterprises’’ ad on the top of the school’s scoreboard at its Alex G. Spanos Stadium. The fools: any time you name a prominent feature of your school after a living alum, especially a mid-career living alum, you are inviting disaster.
Of course, an ethical donor would regard such an honor as creating an ethical obligation not to create dishonor for the school. However, since Al was already deep into an illegal scam when he paid $625,000 for naming rights for the then-new Cal Poly video scoreboard, this ethics principle is inapplicable. Moriarty, a former Cal Poly football player and major sports booster, filed for bankruptcy in Washington state in 2012, and was convicted in 2014 of defrauding 170 investors of $22 million in a Ponzi scheme. He is serving time in San Luis Obispo County Jail.
The school tried to remove the embarrassing sign, arguing that there was an implicit “my name won’t humiliate the school and make it want to vacate the campus” understanding in its naming deal. Nice try. I’m sure the school didn’t vet its donor before allowing him to make the scoreboard a personal billboard, any more than the Houston Astros checked out Enron’s business practices before naming its new stadium “Enron Field.” It is always “Show me the money!” in these venal deals. You’re right; I hate sports teams selling their stadium names to the highest bidder, ending up with monstrosities like “Petco Park.”
The day Fenway Park is renamed “Trump Field” is the day I become a Yankees fan.
But I digress.
Where was I? Oh, right: the name. No, a deal’s a deal, ruled the U.S. Bankruptcy Court. Even though Cal Poly was suckered like the rest of its old football hero’s prey, his ad was bought and paid for fair and square, and that blight on the school’s stadium will remain until California Polytechnic shells out $480,000 to Moriarty’s creditors.
His license plate should read “JERK.”
Pointer: ABA Journal
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