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‘Ship of gold’: Sunken treasure caper scuttles lawyer’s license

The lawyer for a once-celebrated high seas treasure hunter has been hit with a four-year Virginia license suspension while his former client sits in prison for refusing to reveal the location of 500 gold coins.

The coins are a missing portion of millions of dollars in gold and other valuables pulled by Tommy Thompson from the wreck of the S.S. Central America, which sank in 1857 loaded with West Coast treasure.

Lawyer Richard T. Robol gave up his Ohio law license after being sanctioned for helping Thompson hide records of the recovered treasure. Now, pursuant to ruling from the Supreme Court of Virginia, Robol has lost his appeal of a four-year suspension that took effect Sept. 25, 2020.

The Jan. 6 Supreme Court decision confirms that the Virginia State Bar has the power to discipline an attorney even when the attorney is on “associate” status and not authorized to practice law.

The court’s opinion is Robol v. Virginia State Bar (VLW 022-6-002).

Treasure hunter

Thompson’s story is the stuff of a TV documentary. A research scientist, Thompson attracted $12.7 million from 161 investors who believed he could locate the fabled 19th century “Ship of Gold” that went down in a hurricane off the coast of South Carolina, costing hundreds of lives and the loss of tons of California gold rush bounty.

The investors’ confidence was well placed. Thompson located the wreck in 1988 and helped develop deep-sea diving devices that brought a large share of the sunken treasure to dry land.

Not all the backers were satisfied with their portion of the proceeds, however. Litigation ensued as some investors questioned inventories of the recovered treasure provided by Thompson and his legal team.

After being ordered in 2012 to reveal the location of 500 gold coins worth $2 million, Thompson became a fugitive and evaded authorities for three years.


Robol, a graduate of both the University of Virginia and Harvard Law School, was Thompson’s counsel and defended Thompson against accusations that he was hiding records of missing treasure.

Robol has insisted he was acting within ethical boundaries when he accepted Thompson’s word that there were no additional inventories to be disclosed. But adversaries questioned his sincerity, especially after the missing inventories turned up in file cabinets in Robol’s Columbus, Ohio, office building. A portion of that building had been leased to Thompson’s companies.

Other evidence surfaced to suggest Robol was wise to his client’s deceit. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals cited Lewis Carroll to suggest that, even if Robol had the White Queen’s capacity to believe “six impossible things before breakfast,” he could not have believed his clients did not possess additional treasure inventories.

The 6th Circuit affirmed sanctions of $224,580 against Robol.

Disciplinary Board

Presented with the records of those sanctions, a panel of the VSB Disciplinary Board imposed a four-year suspension in 2020. Bar Counsel Renu Brennan had argued for taking Robol’s license away altogether.

Robol had one more card to play. Thompson had disappeared in 2012 in the face of a judge’s demand to disclose the whereabouts of the 500 gold coins, but he was caught by U.S. marshals in 2015. While imprisoned for contempt, Thompson signed a declaration saying Robol would not have been aware of those undisclosed inventories.

The Disciplinary Board was unpersuaded. In a memorandum order, the board rejected Robol’s motion for reconsideration and declared it had authority to discipline Robol for violations of Ohio ethics rules governing candor toward a tribunal, truthfulness and fairness to opposing counsel.

Associate status

Affirming the four-year suspension, the Supreme Court rejected Robol’s argument that an associate member of the Virginia State Bar is essentially a “non-lawyer” not subject to VSB discipline.

The plain language of court rules “establishes that associate members are attorneys who remain subject to the Bar’s jurisdiction and regulation,” wrote Justice William C. Mims for the unanimous court.

Robol’s argument leads to absurdity, the court said. Despite findings of bad faith and fraudulent conduct, “the Bar would be without any power to regulate him because he was not an active member of the Bar.”

“Robol could then reactivate his membership, thereby escaping any accountability for his actions while an associate member,” Mims wrote.

‘Robol knew’

At oral argument, Robol made his case on the merits. He said his client wanted the disputed information kept under tight control.

“Thompson was hyper about secrecy and security. He wanted to maintain the secrecy of inventories. But that doesn’t mean that Robol knew that there was more than one inventory, that these were different inventories,” Robol told the justices, referring to himself in the third person. “And, to the contrary, there is nothing that indicates that he believed that these were something other than the original inventory ….”

“There is not a scintilla of evidence in the record that the appellant had knowledge of these inventories,” Robol maintained.

“There is a scintilla and more,” one justice responded.

Assistant Attorney General Robert B. McEntee III, arguing for the VSB, was more emphatic.

“Mr. Robol lied to multiple federal courts in Ohio over a period of years…. His lies wasted years of judicial resources and delayed justice for the investors whom his client had defrauded…. He is unfit to practice law in Virginia,” McEntee told the justices.

The court rejected Robol’s protests about the sufficiency of the evidence. While Ohio rules say a lawyer should resolve doubts in favor of the client, the record “proves Robol knew his clients’ representations regarding the inventories were false,” the court said.

“These actions caused significant delays in the resolution of the Ohio litigation, and additional costs to all the parties, which was prejudicial to the administration of justice,” Mims wrote.

Justice D. Arthur Kelsey was not on the panel that heard the Robol appeal. Senior Justice Charles S. Russell sat in his place.

Robol was pro se in his appeal of the VSB action, although he was represented by Paul Georgiadis at the VSB hearing.

Brennan declined to comment on behalf of the VSB.

Robol said he was disappointed in the court’s ruling, but was hopeful that “in the next coming years the full story of the S.S. Central America and what has happened will come to light” and lead to a better system of justice. In a Jan. 8 interview, Robol said that there are “publications in the works to bring these facts to light.” He declined to elaborate.

Robol said he had no plans to practice law in Virginia when his suspension expires in 2024. “But who knows what the future will hold,” he added.

Virginia appellate lawyer L. Steven Emmert took note of the Lewis Carroll “six impossible things” citation: “This passage illustrates that a lawyer can’t turn a blind eye to his client’s lies, and expect to retain a clear Bar record,” Emmert wrote in his Virginia Appeals blog.

Thompson — the renegade treasure hunter — remains behind bars for refusing to disclose the location of the missing gold coins. A Jan. 7 status hearing before an Ohio federal judge was postponed because Thompson refused to be transferred in order to appear, according to the court’s online docket.