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Spotlight Report

MacLeish violated R.I. code, judge says

By John Ellement, Globe Staff, 1/25/2003

Roderick MacLeish, the Boston lawyer nationally known for suing the Archdiocese of Boston on behalf of alleged victims of clergy abuse, has been ordered by a federal judge in Rhode Island to attend a legal ethics class because of ''evasive'' testimony he gave in a case there.

In two lengthy rulings, MacLeish and another lawyer at his firm, Greenberg Taurig, were found to have lied in a sworn affidavit in order to get a judge removed from a multimillion-dollar insurance coverage case.

In a decision issued Jan. 17, Rhode Island US District Magistrate Judge Jacob Hagopian said MacLeish violated the Rhode Island code of ethics for lawyers. ''I find Roderick MacLeish not to be a credible witness,'' Hagopian wrote. ''I find that his testimony was evasive.''

Hagopian's punishment was based on an equally stinging ruling issued last year by US District Judge Ronald R. Lagueux, a judge some prominent Boston attorneys described yesterday as biased against Massachusetts lawyers.

MacLeish's firm and Rhode Island lawyers working with MacLeish were also ordered to pay $31,000 in legal fees.

In a telephone interview, MacLeish said he is appealing the finding and expects to prevail. During 23 years as a lawyer, he said, no client has filed a complaint against him with the state Board of Bar Overseers.

''I have never been accused by a judge or a court of being dishonest. I am very confident that this will be resolved favorably,'' he said. ''I take on some tough cases. And sometimes, you know, these things can happen. But I have a record I am really proud of. ''

The Rhode Island case stems from a 1985 motor vehicle accident in Cranston, R.I., during which Joseph F. Fratus was seriously injured when he was hit by a U-Haul truck driven by a drywall installer, Joseph Obert.

Fratus sued and won a $3 million jury verdict in 1988. Since then, the carrier that insured U-Haul, Republic Western Insurance Co., which is MacLeish's client, has been involved in litigation. Fratus settled with the insurance company for $2 million, but Obert wanted the insurance company to pay his share, too.

MacLeish and his firm defended the insurance company against Obert's claim. MacLeish; Robert A. Sherman, another Greenberg lawyer who represents alleged victims of priestly abuse; and Greenberg associate Anna Sankaran handled the case.

Sherman was found not to have violated Rhode Island ethical rules, but MacLeish, Sankaran, and the Rhode Island attorneys for the insurance company did, according to the ruling. Specifically, the judges found that MacLeish and Sankaran filed an affidavit ''laced with falsities'' as they tried to knock Lagueux off the case because of alleged bias against the insurance company.

The Greenberg lawyers, Hagopian wrote, described a meeting in Lagueux's lobby as a ''hearing'' when they should have called it a ''conference'' in their sworn statement. ''They misrepresented facts, made baseless unsupportable arguments and wasted the time and resources of this court,'' he wrote.

The Greenberg lawyers also alleged that Lagueux and Obert's attorneys had manipulated the clerk's office in the Providence courthouse to ensure that Lagueux got Obert's case, an allegation Lagueux roundly dismissed.

''Republic Western is using smoke and mirrors to generate a cloud of confusion in a futile attempt to create some sort of appearance of wrongdoing,'' Lagueux wrote. ''Republic Western has the audacity to accuse [Obert] of judge-shopping when that is exactly what it is doing.''

Lagueux has a history of tangling with Boston lawyers. In the late 1980s, he was privately sanctioned by the federal judiciary for barring Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz from his courtroom after publication of Dershowitz's book on the Claus von Bulow case.

''He is the closest thing in this country to a tyrant in robes,'' Dershowitz said of Lagueux. MacLeish ''is not a man who should have his reputation sullied by this judge,'' added Dershowitz.

Boston attorney Norman Zalkind was honored for courage by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in the late 1980s for challenging Lagueux during a criminal case. Boston attorney Harvey Silverglate also fought with Lagueux in the same criminal case and won.

''His conduct was appalling,'' said Silverglate. ''As a result of my experience, I do think this judge has a bias against lawyers from Massachusetts.''

According to court documents, Lagueux lambasted ''Boston attorneys,'' an apparent reference to Dershowitz, Silverglate, and Zalkind, during a court appearance by MacLeish in the insurance case.

''I've been taken down this road by Boston attorneys before in a criminal case 13 years ago,'' the judge said, according to court records. The Boston lawyers, he said, were taken off that case ''and have never darkened the door of a Rhode Island courtroom since.''

This story ran on page B7 of the Boston Globe on 1/25/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.


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