Truth and Consequences

Former high-powered attorney Michael Lazaroff has admitted breaking federal election law and faces five years in prison. But what about his partners in crime?

The protagonist in Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City" steps off a bus and is promptly arrested by New York City's finest, who move in when a stranger hires him to take a bag across the street for 5 bucks. Neither the cops nor the judge cares that he's fresh from "hard-time Mississippi" and doesn't know enough to say no to someone who calls him "Slick" as the sirens approach. He gets 10 years.

It's a different story at one of the most prestigious law firms in St. Louis, where several of the 280 lawyers at Thompson Coburn have so far escaped unscathed despite apparent violations of federal election rules: In this case, ignorance of the law could prove a valid defense. Former partner Michael Lazaroff clearly broke federal election law by soliciting eight $1,000 campaign contributions from secretaries and fellow attorneys last September. The money that went to Al Gore and Bill Bradley actually came from Lazaroff, who reimbursed his colleagues with $1,000 personal checks. It was, as Lazaroff admitted when he pleaded guilty last month, an effort to skirt the $1,000 campaign-contribution limit. His crime is punishable by five years in prison, a $250,000 fine or both. Lazaroff, who also pleaded guilty to submitting fraudulent bills to clients and keeping a $500,000 bonus that he should have shared with other partners at the law firm, will be sentenced on Sept. 1.

Unlike Lazaroff, nothing has happened to his accomplices. The U.S. Attorney's Office isn't going to prosecute. Steven E. Holtshouser, an assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Lazaroff, didn't return a phone call from the RFT, but he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he never seriously considered charging attorneys who were reimbursed for their contributions and that the office typically grants immunity to people who give information to investigators. Asked by the Post-Dispatch about violations of election law by some of the highest-priced legal talent in the city, John Musgrave, firm chairman, dismissed this as "no issue." Unsure how to tell the good guys from the bad guys, the Post-Dispatch didn't publish the names of attorneys who presumably should have known better. According to the Post, the list of possible culprits includes 17 Thompson Coburn employees listed in Federal Election Commission files as contributors to the Gore and Bradley campaigns.

Dig a bit deeper into court files and FEC records, and the list shrinks considerably. In his plea agreement with the government, Lazaroff says he solicited six sham $1,000 contributions for the Gore campaign and two for Bradley, all in September of last year. According to FEC files, seven Thompson Coburn employees other than Lazaroff made $1,000 contributions to Gore last September (all were received on Sept. 27), and one of those seven employees contributed $1,000 to Bradley that month. It's not clear why the second $1,000 contribution to Bradley that Lazaroff admitted to the government isn't included in FEC records. Presuming Lazaroff came clean with the government and the FEC documents are accurate, just one of those eight $1,000 contributions was legit.

Only one "contributor" has 'fessed up, and it wasn't a lawyer. Rather, Lou Ann Pfeifer (who goes by Lou Ann Wilcox in FEC records) told the Post that Lazaroff duped her into writing $1,000 checks for Gore and Bradley and didn't give her an accurate description of election law. Lazaroff was her boss, and Pfeifer told the Post her trust in him was misplaced. Pfeifer, who was client-relations director for Thompson Coburn, has left the firm for reasons unrelated to the Lazaroff case.

As for the other six Thompson Coburn employees who made $1,000 contributions to Gore or Bradley last September, just one -- attorney Gordon L. Ankney -- flatly denied to the RFT that he was reimbursed by Lazaroff for his $1,000 contribution to Gore. Most other Thompson Coburn employees listed in FEC records as giving $1,000 contributions to Gore or Bradley last September didn't return our phone messages or referred questions to Musgrave, who did not return a call. A spokesman for the Gore campaign says $6,000 in sham contributions were returned to Lazaroff but couldn't say who was listed on FEC records as the donor in those cases.

Given Ankney's denial and Pfeifer's confession, six sham contributions are unaccounted for, including the one Bradley contribution not listed in FEC records. Assuming FEC records are accurate and Lazaroff is telling the truth, those five Thompson Coburn employees who served as fronts and donated to Gore are Lawrence C. Friedman , Steven D. Graham , Steven R. Wild and Lisa Kramer Mueller , all attorneys, and Karon S. Hippard , whose duties at Thompson Coburn aren't clear.

FEC spokesman Ian Stirton says it's against the law to contribute to a campaign and then get reimbursed by the person soliciting the contribution. "Is this a violation of the law?" Stirton says. "Yes, it is. The possibilities are that somebody who's a party to any kind of violation can be held accountable." Although the commission has the power to investigate and impose civil sanctions, that's not usually done when federal prosecutors have already taken a crack at the case, he says. "In the past, I think, when this has happened, generally it's the person who's orchestrated it all who's in the deepest trouble," Stirton says. "If (the Justice Department) has already done it, generally it's rare that the commission would probably go after him civilly." Stirton adds that he can't comment on whether the FEC is investigating Thompson Coburn employees.

Like cops and judges, lawyers are, at least in theory, held to a higher standard than the rest of us. They are officers of the court. As such, they must swear an oath when they become lawyers. The vow includes a promise to abide by the Rules of Professional Conduct, which state that it is professional misconduct for a lawyer to "commit a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer's honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer in other respects." The rules also define misconduct as "conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation."

John Howe, who heads the Office of Disciplinary Counsel (an arm of the Missouri Supreme Court), is responsible for investigating violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct and determining whether lawyers who violate them should be sanctioned. Howe was out of the office and unavailable for comment. His office has broad discretion in deciding which cases to pursue, and criminal convictions are not a prerequisite.

Carol Needham, a professor at the St. Louis University School of Law who specializes in legal ethics, says lawyers who commit crimes or otherwise act unethically can get in trouble even if their conduct has nothing to do with their legal practice. For example, lawyers who have engaged in domestic violence or embezzled Girl Scout cookie money have been sanctioned, she notes. One key question is whether Thompson Coburn lawyers who cut checks and were reimbursed by Lazaroff knew they were violating federal election law. Lawyers who know everything about family law or estate planning may not have a clue about election law, Needham says: "He (Lazaroff) could have come up with some kind of cockamamy story -- 'My wife doesn't like me giving money to these campaigns; I don't want it to show up on the register.'

"It just depends on what (the lawyer) thought he was doing when he wrote the check."

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