Legal lines blur for some lawyers

Lawyer Gregory R. Noonan in handcuffs after a court proceeding on prescription charges.
Lawyer Gregory R. Noonan in handcuffs after a court proceeding on prescription charges. (CAROLYN DAVIS / Staff)
Posted: January 23, 2014

After police raided the Malvern home of lawyer Arthur David Goldman this month, seizing almost 2,500 bottles of wine from his floor-to-ceiling wine cellar, Goldman didn't deny that he had broken the law.

In fact, authorities said, Goldman admitted selling high-end wine without a license. But he said his profit was minimal: only enough to cover the cost of a bottle or two for himself in each shipment, he allegedly told an undercover agent.

Goldman, 49, is not the only lawyer to make headlines in recent months for ending up in a police mug shot.

Last month, Gregory R. Noonan, a lawyer in Montgomery County, was arrested on charges of selling prescription pills to an undercover officer. In October, Lynn Nichols, a prosecutor with the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, was charged with filing a false report to exact revenge on an ex-boyfriend.

Local attorneys who represent other lawyers in criminal and professional misconduct cases said that most lawyers know better than to break the rules. But a small percentage do it anyway.

"Nobody thinks they are going to get caught," said Philadelphia lawyer James C. Schwartzman. "I don't think they think about the effect it can have on their ability to practice law."

Lawyers who are convicted of crimes do not automatically lose their licenses. But convictions trigger a disciplinary process that can lead to suspension or disbarment. Statewide, the number of lawyers who are disbarred has varied from 25 to 45 per year over the last decade, according to the Pennsylvania disciplinary board. Of course, not every lawyer who has been disbarred has committed or even been accused of a crime. Some, for example, may fail to comply with the state's licensing requirements or to return unearned fees.

"I've never understood why people would take that chance," said Robert H. Davis Jr., a Harrisburg lawyer and professor at Widener Law School. "I've always been surprised by how easy it is for lawyers to lose track of the potentially severe consequences of what they do."

Clifford Cohn, a Philadelphia lawyer who often represents lawyers in malpractice suits, said some people become lawyers because they are fascinated by the ways laws can be manipulated. Some lawyers grow so accustomed to challenging legal boundaries that they may start to think, perhaps unconsciously, that the rules don't apply to them.

"When you have a lot of practice nitpicking aspects of the law," Cohn said, "it probably becomes easier for some people to justify things."

Goldman is accused of buying wine that was not available in the state and selling it to local wine connoisseurs, and faces misdemeanor charges, such as illegal liquor sales.

Peter E. Kratsa, the attorney for Goldman, said that people have expressed sympathy for his client and that Gordon disputes some of the allegations by police.

"It's my belief," Kratsa said, "that once the facts of this case come to light, he's going to be viewed as an even more sympathetic person."

To anyone who has ever bought alcohol in Delaware and crossed into Pennsylvania without paying taxes on it, Goldman's crime may seem victimless, said Davis.

"But we don't get to pick and choose what laws we like," he said. "And lawyers should know that."

Lawyers are people, too

Lawyers said that like people in general, some of them become addicted to drugs or alcohol, or get into financial trouble that leads to criminal behavior.

Noonan, of Lansdale, was arrested after allegedly selling the addictive painkiller oxycodone, pills he told police he got from the wife of a client who owed him money. Federal bankruptcy records show Noonan has been dealing with money woes for a decade.

Samuel Stretton, a West Chester lawyer representing Noonan in his dealings with the disciplinary board, said Noonan, who is in jail, would agree not to practice law while the criminal case against him proceeds.

"He did the right thing, and he's going to straighten his life out," said Stretton, who does not represent Noonan in the criminal case.

Nichols, a veteran prosecutor until she resigned in October, is accused of asking a police officer to remove a car from the department's stolen-vehicles database. The car was being driven by her boyfriend, but owned by another woman, authorities said. Later, after the relationship ended, she was accused of filing a police report intended to frame him for theft of that car.

Even if the chance of being caught is remote, Davis said, most lawyers still decide that the drawbacks of breaking the rules outweigh the benefits.

"This is the human piece of lawyers," Davis said. "What it comes down to is, some people will take the risks. Others won't."


asteele@phillynews.com

610-313-8113

@AESteele

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