Three well-known lawyers accused of orchestrating an elaborate scheme to discredit a former Superior Court judge ''brought shame and disrepute" to the legal community and should be disbarred, a hearing officer for the state recommended yesterday, in one of Massachusetts' most closely watched attorney discipline cases ever.
In a blistering 229-page ruling, M. Ellen Carpenter, the hearing officer for the state Board of Bar Overseers, said a plot by Kevin P. Curry, Gary C. Crossen, and Richard K. Donahue to try to show that Judge Maria Lopez was biased during the long legal battle over the Demoulas family supermarket fortune was unparalleled in its sordidness. The lawyers allegedly tried to wring information from Lopez's former law clerk through trickery, extortion, and intimidation.
Carpenter said she had considered whether to recommend that the lawyers be suspended from practicing for at least three years, but she concluded that disbarment, the most severe disciplinary action, was the appropriate punishment, given what she characterized as their dishonest testimony at their disciplinary hearing.
''I have found no case anywhere that deals with facts remotely like those at issue in this sordid affair," Carpenter wrote. The three lawyers, she went on, ''have left what one can only hope is not an indelible impression that lawyers, even very prominent ones, will do almost anything to prevail if enough money is at stake and available for their use."
The decision is a devastating indictment of the three lawyers, two of whom -- Crossen and Donahue -- have enjoyed close ties to some of the biggest names in state and national politics. The three were accused of breaching ethical rules by luring the law clerk, Paul Walsh, with a fake job offer and then threatening his career if he did not cooperate in their effort to prove that Lopez was biased against their clients.
Before it takes effect, Carpenter's recommended punishment has to be approved by the Board of Bar Overseers and then a single Supreme Judicial Court justice.
But the three lawyers, either directly or through their legal representation, said yesterday that they expect to appeal the recommendation for disbarment to the board and, if necessary, to the SJC. That means the matter promises to drag on for months, if not years.
''I will vigorously fight this ruling, which has no legal impact on my current ability to practice law," said a statement issued by Crossen. ''I believe the ruling is gravely and fundamentally flawed."
Crossen is a former federal and Suffolk County prosecutor, former chairman of the state Judicial Nominating Commission, and former ethics counsel to Governors William F. Weld and Paul Cellucci.
Richard W. Renehan, who represents Donahue -- a former chairman of the Board of Bar Overseers, former assistant to President Kennedy, and a onetime president of
Curry's lawyer, Thomas Lynch, said his client did nothing wrong.
''This ruling is one hearing officer's opinion," he said, ''and we obviously disagree with it."
Legal specialists who follow lawyer disciplinary proceedings in Massachusetts said the majority of recommendations for disbarment are upheld. The state Board of Bar Overseers disbarred 25 lawyers in its most recent fiscal year.
State Bar Counsel Daniel Crane, who acted as the prosecutor in the disciplinary hearings, applauded Carpenter's decision because it ''vindicates some very important ethical principles" that restrict lawyers from interfering in judicial decision-making and from using deception while gathering evidence in civil cases.
The extraordinary disciplinary case, which dates to alleged misconduct in 1997, stems from the battle over the $1.5 billion Demoulas supermarket empire, the lengthiest and most expensive civil litigation in state history.
Lopez presided over two civil trials that pitted the families of Telemachus Demoulas and his late brother, George, who cofounded the grocery chain, against each other. She ruled that George Demoulas's heirs had been cheated out of millions of dollars and ordered a massive transfer of assets.
Curry, Crossen, and Donahue all worked at various times for the losing side and believed that Lopez had shown bias against their clients. To prove it, they mounted an intricate scheme to extract evidence from Walsh while enticing him with a bogus job offer, Crane contended at the disciplinary hearings.
In a plot that involved private detectives, a phony multinational insurance company, and stretch limousines, the lawyers allegedly staged sham interviews with Walsh in Halifax, Nova Scotia; Manhattan; and Boston.
Curry originated the ''seamy ruse," Carpenter said, and the other two joined in to create a ''Potemkin village to gull Walsh into believing he was about to land the job of his dreams."
During the course of the meetings, they secretly taped Walsh as bragging that he had written most of a key decision in the Demoulas case. He also told them that Lopez had instructed him who the ''good guys" and the ''bad guys" were in the case.
After the lawyers allegedly revealed their true motives to Walsh and threatened to disclose embarrassing information about him, he went to the FBI. FBI agents persuaded him to wear a wire and secretly tape-record conversations with the lawyers.
The US Justice Department investigated the case, but federal prosecutors decided in early 2001 not to bring criminal charges. Weld and former Suffolk district attorney Ralph C. Martin II were among several present and former prosecutors who wrote letters of support to the Justice Department on behalf of Crossen.
Walsh's lawyer, Harry L. Manion of Boston, issued a brief statement yesterday on behalf of his client, who now works as a lawyer in Hong Kong for a healthcare company. He said Walsh expressed his gratitude to the bar counsel and others for their support and ''unqualified commitment to justice."
Lopez declined to comment through her husband, Stephen Mindich. Lopez resigned from the bench in 2003 after a public uproar over her handling of a case involving the sexual assault of a child.
During hearings before the state Commission on Judicial Conduct before she stepped down, she testified that she believed the complaints to the commission had been engineered by enemies, including allies of Telemachus Demoulas.
In recommending disbarment, Carpenter, president of the Boston Bar Association, said Crossen and Donahue should have known better than to participate in the scheme. In browbeating Walsh, they treated the young lawyer ''like some cornered junkie from one of Crossen's criminal cases," she concluded.
As for Curry, Carpenter said the former state prosecutor confused the roles of a prosecutor and private lawyer by using ''subterfuge to conduct investigations."
''I find that he viewed his misconduct as business as usual," she wrote. ''This was, he informed me, the kind of investigation he and [a private detective] generally conducted -- dredging, as it turns out, for scandalous information and cultivating scurrilous charges to use against others when it suited his purposes."
David L. Yas, publisher and editor in chief of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, said he was not surprised by the decision.
Many lawyers, he said, felt that if Crossen and Donahue had not enjoyed top-notch reputations, the three lawyers would have been disciplined much sooner.
''This whole affair is a reminder that zealousness can go too far," Yas said. ''It struck just about everyone in the legal community as unusually extreme measures to attack a judge's credibility by fooling the clerk. It bordered on the bizarre."
Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at email@example.com.