What Kind of Schmuck Would Hire Frank Pignatelli?

 Posted on January 26, 2009 in Uncategorized

From a post, The Nature of the Job, last October:

Clients sometimes think that they want a lawyer who will act unethically for them, but they don't: first, because a defense based on lies is almost always doomed to fail; and second, because clients need lawyers they can trust. Unethical lawyers are... unethical. A lawyer who behaves dishonestly "for his clients" can reasonably be expected to behave dishonestly toward his clients. [Edit: Or, as Windy Pundit Mark Draughn writes, "you have no right to be surprised when you discover he's ripping you off and screwing your wife."]

From the headlines, today on South Carolina criminal-defense lawyer Bobby Frederick's blog:

Ohio defense attorney Frank Pignatelli turned informant, now practicing criminal defense in Denver.

New York criminal-defense lawyer Scott Greenfield lays into the lawyer, Francis M. Pignatelli (yes, I am using his name as often as possible), here.

... [T]here is no place horrific enough in the bowels of hell for the soul of a lawyer who would flip on his clients to save his sorry criminal butt. Then again, as he's already made the choice to sell his soul for a pile of cash, he's lost any hope of integrity and the step to being a rat is a small one in comparison.

I'm not as certain as Scott that Francis Pignatelli joined in his clients' conspiracy, making the choice to sell his soul for a pile of cash. Here's what I've read:

Federal prosecutors said they learned through another investigation that Frank Pignatelli was helping his clients purchase "stash houses" in which to store drugs and money. Based on the investigation, which included wire taps, agents searched Francis Michael Pignatelli's home and recovered large sums of cash, authorities said. He was not indicted, but instead began cooperating with federal drug investigators.

As always, the presumption of innocence applies and what federal prosecutors say is taken with a substantial grain of salt. Frank Pignatelli was dirty and got caught, or he was clean and got spooked; either way, he stepped on his clients to climb out of the hole of criminal liability.

If Francis M. Pignatelli was dirty and got caught, then it is possible that some of his clients were using him to commit crimes. In that case, what they told him was not privileged, and it's hard to sympathize with either him or them.

It's also possible that some of the people he snitched on were legitimate clients, depending on him to keep their confidences and protect their freedom. If that's the case, whether he was clean or not, snitching on those clients was the greatest sin that Frank M. Pignatelli could commit as a criminal-defense lawyer. As Scott writes,

It is, quite plainly, about as inconceivably ruinous to the integrity of the criminal justice system for a person masquerading as a criminal-defense lawyer to use the information obtained to rat people out. I say "masquerading" as a rat cannot, by definition, be a criminal-defense lawyer. It would be a contradiction in terms. He can wear the suit, talk the talk, but he cannot be a lawyer, no less a criminal-defense lawyer. It isn't possible.

Either way - if he was a criminal who ratted out his coconspirators, or if he was a lawyer who ratted out his clients - Francis Michael Pignatelli is a crook who has no business accepting the confidences of people charged with crimes. This is especially true of people charged with crimes by the Federal government, which appears still to have a sword over his neck: "He has been offered consideration of a lesser sentence, if or when he is charged, authorities said". And now Francis M. Pignatelli is taking clients - federal clients, no less - in Denver.

Dishonest lawyers are dishonest, and can reasonably be expected to treat their clients dishonestly. Dishonest lawyers are also, as Frank Pignatelli's case illustrates, vulnerable.

How could anyone - including the U.S. District Judges before whom he appears - possibly imagine that there's not a conflict of interest between Mr. Pignatelli and every client who is, like him, facing federal prosecution?

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