Legal Ethics

Secretary: I Told Managing Partner He Was Out of His Mind As He Defended Thieving Colleague

In an ongoing legal ethics trial of six attorneys from a prominent Maine law firm, a former secretary there has now given her account of what was said after she blew the whistle on a trust and estates partner who had stolen from Verrill Dana and its clients.

In an August 2007 meeting, then-managing partner David Warren didn’t listen as she insisted that her boss, partner John Duncan, had stolen from a client, testified Eleanor “Ellie” Rommel. Instead, he told her told her that Duncan had merely stolen from the firm, by retaining legal fees that should have gone to the partnership. Duncan had apologized and repaid the money, Warren said, and would stay with the firm, reports the Portland Press Herald.

Warren said he knew Duncan was telling the truth about not stealing from clients because he had looked Warren in the eye and given his word, Rommel recounted.

“I said, ‘David, you’re out of your f—ing mind,’” Rommel testified Tuesday at a disciplinary hearing for Warren and five other Verrill Dana lawyers, according to the Press Herald and the Sun Journal. “I didn’t go to Bowdoin College. I didn’t go to law school. I graduated from the school of hard knocks, but I’m smarter than that.”

Earlier, Warren testified that Rommel was happy to be told that Duncan hadn’t stolen from clients and never criticized his handling of her complaint.

The six Verrill Dana lawyers, who all served in management roles at the firm, are accused by the Maine Board of Bar Overseers of turning a blind eye to Duncan’s misconduct instead of immediately investigating and notifying bar authorities.

The firm did arrange an independent investigation, which confirmed some $300,000 in misappropriations by Duncan from the firm and its clients, and fired him. However, that was in the latter part of 2007, more than three months after it was alerted by Rommel in June 2007, according to prior testimony.

Now Justice Donald Alexander of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court must decide, after hearing the case, whether the lawyers violated their ethical obligations. The trial is taking place in Lewiston District Court.

Rommel and Warren also gave differing testimony about what had happened concerning her own job, which Rommel said she quit, although she loved working at the firm, because of the stress of reporting Duncan. She said Warren refused to let her pursue a possible short-term disability leave. He said it was she who didn’t want to do so and also said he had several times offered to let her return to the firm and work in a different department, the Press Herald reports.

Rommel and the firm reached an undisclosed settlement of her wrongful termination claim in 2008.

Additional coverage: “At Issue in Ethics Trial: Did Verrill Dana Try to Cover Up in $300K Partner Theft Matter?”

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