A former official of a real estate spinoff of Youth Pride Inc., indicted two months ago on fraud charges, told a U.S. District Court judge yesterday that he has contacted five lawyers but has been unable to hire any of them because he cannot afford the legal fees they have demanded to take on the complex case.
Robert E. Lee told U.S. District Court Judge John Garrett Penn that, in searching for a lawyer, "I still have a problem with the fee required in this case," which he described as an "enormous sum."
Defense lawyer John A. Shorter Jr., who represented Lee at his arraignment on the criminal charges, has filed a motion with the court to withdraw from the case, saying that efforts to come to terms with Lee on representing him were "unavailing." Penn told Lee yesterday that he has not yet granted Shorter's request to be taken off the case.
While Lee has been attempting to retain a lawyer himself, Penn has been trying to find a court-appointed lawyer to represent former Youth Pride director Mary Treadwell, who was indicted with Lee and two other officials of the real estate spinoff, P.I. Properties Inc. Penn scheduled a further hearing for Treadwell and Lee for April 26.
Treadwell has maintained that she cannot afford to hire a lawyer to adequately defend her against the government's charges, which were developed during a two-year investigation. After examining Treadwell's financial records, Penn said she qualified for a lawyer appointed by the court and paid for under the federal Criminal Justice Act.
The city's Public Defender Service often takes complex cases in which the defendant cannot afford to hire a lawyer. However, most of their work focuses on street crimes, such as murder or rape, as opposed to so-called white collar cases, such as a fraud case.
The indictment charged that Treadwell, Lee, Treadwell's sister Joan M. Booth and Charles W. Rinker Jr. used P.I. Properties, which they said was a nonprofit business, to obtain federal government funds that they then used for personal expenses and their own profit-making enterprises.
Accountant Ronald S. Williams, Treadwell's estranged husband, was also named in the indictment but pleaded guilty to a lesser charge last week and has agreed to cooperate with the prosecution.
The prosecution has said in court that it has a list of 97 witnesses for trial of the case, which it estimates will take a minimum of six to eight weeks to complete, and plans to introduce up to 1,500 documents into evidence.
If an attorney charged $75 an hour, considered a middle-range rate in the Washington area, trial time alone in the case would cost more than $30,000, not counting months of preparation before the case came to court.
At Penn's request, the law firm of Covington & Burling, the largest and one of the most powerful law firms in Washington, last week had agreed to represent Treadwell. The firm withdrew from the case by the end of the week, however, after it discovered that some of its lawyers had handled a civil lawsuit brought against Treadwell by tenants of an apartment complex managed by P.I. Properties.
Rinker has retained lawyers Lawrence J. Latto and Andrew H. Marks from the Washington firm of Shea & Gardner. Booth, whom Penn said also qualifies for a court-appointed lawyer, is represented by attorney Grandison E. Hill.