In an attempt to drum up legal business, some D.C. law firms used “runners” to gain illegal access to traffic accident reports taken by police and then tried to solicit individuals in the crashes to become clients, new filings in a federal court case state.
The details were revealed in a plea agreement for a District police officer who admitted accepting nearly $15,000 in bribes for about a year that ended in January to hand over individuals’ phone numbers and sometimes names from accident reports to the intermediaries.
The law firms and the runners were not identified in the court filings for Walter Lee, 36, a 12-year department veteran who worked patrol in the Sixth District.
Between February 2018 and January, Lee used his police access 11,062 times to pull up information on a restricted database, he said in his plea to bribery of public officials and witnesses. He was paid in cash for sending the information to an individual not named in court and at times picked up his payments from under a door mat at the person’s home, court filings show.
Copies of traffic accident reports became more restricted in the District in 2015, allowing only those directly involved in the crash, including victims, attorneys and investigators, to access them.
Hamilton Fox, D.C. Bar’s disciplinary counsel, said his office has been trying to crack down on attorneys’ use of runners for years. For people who have been seriously injured, Fox said, it might be difficult to make a decision about a lawyer with a clear head.
“There’s a balance you have to strike,” he said.
Fox said he would neither confirm nor deny whether his office is investigating any lawyers using runners to gain access to crash reports.
No charges had been brought against any lawyers as of Thursday.
In June 2017, D.C. police launched an audit of the crash report database after receiving information about attorney activity from the D.C. Bar’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel and the Committee on Anti-Solicitation for the Trial Lawyers Association of Metropolitan Washington, according to court documents.
The information from crash reports was used to solicit those involved in traffic crashes to become clients of their firms within several days of the event, plea documents state.
A separate audit by the Internal Affairs Division was then conducted that uncovered Lee’s usage, according to the plea agreement.
Lee faces between 24 and 30 months in prison if a judge accepts the terms of his plea agreement. Lee agreed to resign from the police force as part of the deal, but as of Thursday the resignation had not yet taken effect.
In a separate case two weeks ago, Marvin Parker, 60, pleaded guilty to one count of felony bribery after he admitted to paying more than $40,000 to two D.C. police employees to obtain crash report information. Parker admitted to using the information to identify people involved in traffic crashes, whom he would call with offers to help with legal representation and medical services, according to plea documents.
It is unclear in court documents whether his case is related to Lee’s.