A federal appeals court finds it a “close question” whether a lawyer can be convicted of obstruction of justice for conveniently omitting his prior disciplinary record in seeking pro hac vice status in a Virginia case.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided the omission alone was not sufficient to prove the criminal charge, rejecting government efforts to tie the lawyer’s lie to speculation about his motives for staying in the case.
The decision comes in the money laundering case of former Maryland lawyer Walter L. Blair, now serving a 97-year sentence for his scheme to keep drug money he received from a client.
Blair used part of the money to hire lawyers for two other Virginia drug defendants, and served as co-counsel for one of them. Because he was not admitted to practice in Virginia federal court, he asked for court permission to join the case. In his application for pro hac vice status, he denied any prior professional discipline, omitting any mention of his 1984 West Virginia reprimand for witness tampering.
That false statement was obstruction of justice, the government argued, because Blair had a secret motive in wanting to stay on the case. The prosecution contended Blair wanted to keep tabs on the prosecution of the drug ring since he was laundering the ring’s profits. His conflict of interest threatened to undermine any conviction, government lawyers argued.
The appeals court panel deemed it a “close question,” but it found the government’s arguments rested on mere speculation. Blair’s convictions for money laundering and failure to file tax returns were affirmed, but the court reversed the conviction for obstruction of justice.
The panel split on whether Blair could be convicted of illegally spending drug money, with a two-member majority deciding he did not fall within a safe harbor for hiring legal counsel. Blair used $20,000 to hire lawyers for others, so the exception did not apply, the majority concluded.
By Peter Vieth