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Accused of misconduct, prominent lawyer seeks to hold on to his license

ACCUSED OF MISCONDUCT Stephen B. Hrones allegedly let a paralegal pass himself off as a lawyer in the firm’s employment discrimination practice. ACCUSED OF MISCONDUCT
Stephen B. Hrones allegedly let a paralegal pass himself off as a lawyer in the firm’s employment discrimination practice.
By Jonathan Saltzman
Globe Staff / March 1, 2010

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Two years ago, he was both lawyer and de facto press agent for the man who called himself Clark Rockefeller, flanking the owlish accused kidnapper in court, arranging jailhouse interviews between his client and reporters, and enthusiastically making the rounds on network and cable news shows.

Now Stephen B. Hrones, the well-known 68-year-old Boston criminal defense lawyer, is heading to the state’s highest court to fight to keep his law license, accused of letting a paralegal in his office pass himself off as a lawyer in the firm’s employment discrimination practice.

The state Board of Bar Overseers recommended in October that Hrones’s license be suspended for a year and a day for the alleged misconduct. The Supreme Judicial Court plans to hear appeals in May from Hrones, who says he deserves no suspension, and from the state’s bar counsel, which had recommended a two-year suspension.

Hrones - a bearded, Harvard-educated former Fulbright scholar who dubbed himself Mr. Innocence for getting the murder or rape convictions of four prisoners tossed, based on newly discovered evidence - denied Thursday that he had authorized former employee Lionel Porter to practice law. Hrones said the firm’s letterhead identified Porter as a paralegal but that Porter began doing things behind Hrones’s back, mishandling cases and clients’ fees.

“I was too trusting of this individual, and now I’m paying the price,’’ Hrones said in an interview. “I was done in by this guy, and I should have supervised him better. . . . But I didn’t hold him out as a lawyer.’’

Porter worked for Hrones from 2001 to 2004, handling employment discrimination cases before the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission even though he was, as Hrones knew, a law school graduate who had not been admitted to the bar.

Porter bungled a series of cases; got Hrones’s firm barred from appearing before MCAD, which short-circuited active cases; and kept clients’ fees for himself, according to the board’s Oct. 19 recommendation of suspension.

Although the work of paralegals can resemble that of lawyers, the board concluded that Porter went far beyond permitted tasks. Porter single-handedly managed the firm’s employment discrimination practice and drafted and filed complaints at his own initiative in Hrones’s name in federal and state courts, the board said. Hrones fired him in the fall of 2004 after learning that Porter had kept fees in violation of an agreement to split them.

Constance V. Vecchione, chief bar counsel, whose office acted as prosecutor in the disciplinary case that led to the board’s recommendation, declined to comment on the proposed suspension. But in a filing last year, she wrote that Hrones actively encouraged Porter to practice law without a license.

His “assistance to Porter was anything but passive,’’ she wrote. Hrones was “Porter’s enabler and protector, and he continued to enable and protect Porter long after he was on notice of Porter’s malfeasance,’’ she added.

Hrones said Thursday that Porter has vanished, and Hrones’s attorney, Elizabeth N. Mulvey, said she does not know his whereabouts. Vecchione said her office also does not know where Porter is.

Hrones’s straits have elicited expressions of sympathy from some fellow criminal defense lawyers, including Jeffrey A. Denner of Boston, who replaced Hrones as Rockefeller’s lawyer three months after the defendant was arrested on Aug. 2, 2008, on charges of abducting his 7-year-old daughter, Reigh Storrow Mills Boss, during a supervised visit in the Back Bay.

“Steve Hrones has a great record of criminal defense representation of a wide range of individuals, and I find it very sad that it’s come to this,’’ said Denner. “Although I’m not familiar with the specifics of the case, I know Mr. Hrones would not go [to the SJC] if he didn’t feel he had a legitimate reason for appealing his suspension.’’

Denner made the comment even though he had tacitly criticized Hrones’s handling of Rockefeller, a German national who is really named Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter.

Before the notorious custodial kidnapping case went to trial last year, Denner asked a judge to block statements Hrones had made to reporters during a whirlwind of post-arrest interviews. During the interviews, Hrones had said his client spoke German but did not remember growing up in Germany and remembered “bits and pieces’’ of his childhood, including a Scottish nanny and a visit to Mount Rushmore.

Hrones also raised eyebrows in legal circles by agreeing to let his client be interviewed at the Nashua Street jail by three reporters from the Globe and, separately, by a reporter for NBC’s “Today Show.’’ Although some defense lawyers privately scorned such tactics, Hrones insisted he had to counter negative media coverage of his client.

Rockefeller was convicted on June 12, 2009, of parental kidnapping and assault charges.

A suspension is one of the harshest penalties that can be imposed on a Massachusetts lawyer.

Some 151 lawyers were disciplined in the fiscal year that ended in August 2009, with punishments that ranged from a private reprimand to disbarment, according to the Bar Counsel’s Office.

If Hrones is suspended for more than a year, he would have to apply to be reinstated. Hrones has requested that the SJC approve a three-month suspension but not impose it as long as he commits no further misconduct.

He said Thursday that he was considering retiring anyway but doesn’t want to end his career with a suspension.

“Naturally, it’s a matter of my reputation,’’ he said.

Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com.