Two Virginia Beach lawyers pleaded guilty in federal court in Norfolk yesterday to possessing cocaine, bringing to six the number of lawyers convicted in cocaine-related cases in Tidewater in the last year.
Former assistant commonwealth's attorney Michael Sheehan and private lawyer Joel Bieber admitted they had possessed and used small amounts of cocaine at several parties in the Virginia Beach area. The misdemeanor carries a maximum prison term of one year and fines up to $100,000.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert J. Seidel said the prosecution of lawyers is particularly troubling, especially when prosecutors are involved in using cocaine.
"Attorneys, as officers of the courts, have a duty when they are sworn in to uphold the law. They are in a higher position of trust, so there's certainly surprise, shock and concern," Seidel said. "Hard to explain why they do it, but they do."
Peter W. Rowe, president of the Norfolk-Portsmouth Bar Association, said the guilty pleas of Tidewater lawyers does not reflect a regional problem so much as the attitudes of younger professionals.
"There's a generation of people who are now reaching the yuppie stage for whom, since they were sub-teens, drugs have been an accepted part of life," Rowe said. "But the atmosphere is changing now. The courts are not winking at it, especially when it's cocaine and not marijuana."
Rowe rejected the idea that the reputation of Virginia Beach as a party town had anything to do with the lawyers' drug habits.
"Sure, there's some fast people in Virginia Beach, but there's fast people in Georgetown; there's fast people in Alexandria," Rowe said. "There's fast people anywhere you want to go."
Seidel said the prosecution of the six lawyers grew out of three investigations of drug kingpins in the Tidewater area. Sheehan and Bieber came up during the later stages of one of the FBI probes.
"About four levels down you get these type of individuals," Seidel said of Sheehan and Bieber. "Cocaine use is a crime with at least one witness. There is always going to be someone who provided the cocaine."
Seidel said drug prosecutions often lead from the top down as larger dealers and users turn in smaller ones in an effort to reduce their sentences. The domino effect can reach all the way to people sharing cocaine at parties, he said.
The cocaine use of the two lawyers who pleaded yesterday "appeared to be social," Seidel said. ". . . I think the largest quantity was only an eight ball -- 3 1/2 grams, about $250 worth of cocaine."
Other lawyers who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor possession charges in Tidewater in the last year were former Hampton assistant commonwealth's attorney Reginald Harding, Norfolk lawyer Elizabeth Jane Anderson, Portsmouth lawyer Bartley F. Tuthill and Norfolk lawyer Cynthia Baskett. It was the first conviction for all four lawyers, who were sentenced to probation.
U.S. District Judge J. Calvitt Clarke Jr. in Norfolk set sentencing for March 15 for Sheehan and Bieber.