Kenneth Michael Robinson, the colorful defense lawyer who boasts an 80 percent winning record, says he was unjustly deprived of his right to represent an man indicted in April for conspiracy to counterfeit money.
"I got flim-flammed," Robinson said in an interview last week, saying, there was no reason why he should not have been allowed to represent Joseph J. Datillo, who was prepared to pay Robinson more than $25,000 for his counsel.
But U.S. District Court Judge George L. Hart saw things differently, particulary after Robinison himself alerted the judge that Robinson might have a conflict of interest in the case.
Here's what happeded, according to the briefs filed in the case:
Percy Pettaway, who was indicted along with Datillo, asked Robinson to be his counsel Robinson asked for a $25,000 retainer. Pettaway borrowed the money, but decided to find another lawyer. Then he decided to become a government witness against Datillo. Pettaway said he gave Robinson $600 for the nearly two hours they discussed the case.
"I said I will take your $600 for wasting my time," Robinson recalled before the judgde. But Robinson insisted that the case really wasn't discussed and no client confidences were revealed. Most of the discussion, he said, was over how Pettaway might arrange a loan to pay Robinson.
Robinson argued that if he represented Datillo, he could not possibly violate ethical canons against revealing a client's confidences or later using anything a client said against him. That was because Pettaway didn't tell anything really confidential, only that he was innocent, Robinson said. Therefore, Robinson argued, there was no conflict of interest and no reason why he couldn't now represent Datillo.
"You took the $600?" asked the judge, who had earlier told Robinson that, just based on Robinson's version of his talk with Pettaway -- let alone Pettaway's claim that they fully discussed the case -- it would be "quite impossible" for Robinson to represent Datillo.
"Mr. Robinson," Hart said, "I am surprised you are even here arguing with me about this. I really am. . . It is perfectly clear to me that you are completely disqualified to sit in this case and I don't understand how you can even argue about it."
But Robinson insisted, to no avail, that Pettaway was lying about what the two of them had discussed and appealed Hart's decision, with Datillo agreeing to foot the bill, to the Court of Appeals. A three-judge panel issued a four-page opinion on June 16, upholding Hart's decision.
The panel pointed out that there was no way for any court to get into the dispute between Pettaway and Robinson since courts are forbidden from asking about the details of a conversation between a lawyer and his client. But the panel said that in any event Hart was correct in disqualifying Robinson.
Robinson said last week he had considered appealing the case to the Supreme Court and even asked the U.S. Attorney's office what they would think of such an appeal. But he finally decided not to appeal.
"I'm out and I'm broke," said Robinson, who said recently listed in the National Law Journal as charging fees of $150 to $200 an hour.
The Department of Justice has its own Case of the Purloined Letters.
It began the night of June 18, a few hours after two disgruntled Justice lawyers had circulated copies of a scathing letter they had written to Rudolph W. Giuliani, No. 3 man in the department.
The letter accused Giuliani of holding a private "backdoor" meeting with the general counsel from McDonnell Douglas Corp. to discuss settling criminal charges against the company and four top executives. The trial is scheduled for this fall.
The authors put copies of the protest letter face down on the desks of about 45 of their colleagues. Many apparently read it and left it in their offices. Others were not in but would presumably see it on their desks in the morning.
But when the lawyers showed up for work the next day, all copies were gone, apparently taken from the desks, credenzas and, in one instance, from the middle of a stack of papers on one attorney's desk. One lawyer said it appeared, however, that no desks or files were rifled in the theft.
Justice Department spokesmen said they were unaware of the incident.