Whistle-blowing secretary testifies against Portland lawyers in bar hearing

Posted Dec. 15, 2010, at 7:17 a.m.

LEWISTON, Maine (MCT) — A secretary who blew the whistle on a partner at a prominent Portland law firm because he was stealing from a client said she was astounded to find out he wasn’t fired.

Eleanor Rommel testified Tuesday in 8th District Court that she met with Verrill Dana’s then-managing partner two months after she’d left the firm in 2007. He told her the lawyer who’d taken the money hadn’t done anything criminal. He had “misappropriated” the money by depositing it into his bank account instead of the firm’s account.

Rommel argued that the lawyer, John Duncan, had stolen the money by writing checks from the client’s account to himself in addition to charging the account for hourly fees.

The managing partner, David Warren, said the executive board of the firm voted unanimously to let Duncan stay on.

“Everybody’s entitled to one mistake,” Warren told Rommel.

She said she responded: “You are out of your f—ing mind.”

It was the second day of a hearing in a case brought by the Maine Board of Overseers of the Bar, which is acting on Rommel’s complaint to the bar against six of the firm’s lawyers. The hearing is expected to wrap up Wednesday, when Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justice Donald Alexander will mull whether to take action against any of the defendants.

Rommel took the witness stand for most of the morning and part of the afternoon Tuesday.

She rebutted Warren’s testimony from Monday. He said Rommel had been relieved by Warren’s investigative efforts and she never used epithets when he talked to her.

Duncan was convicted the following year on two counts of theft and was sentenced to two years in federal prison. In all, he stole nearly $300,000, more than one-third of that amount from six of the firm’s clients; the remainder represented fees that should have been paid to the firm but were embezzled by Duncan.

The Board of Overseers is seeking professional sanctions against Warren and five others who made up the firm’s executive board.

In his charging document, J. Scott Davis, counsel for the Board of Overseers, said all six of the firm’s lawyers “engaged in willful blindness and received stolen property” from Duncan when he gave the firm a check for $77,500 that he had stolen from a then-deceased client’s estate.

Rommel, who worked at the firm for six years, said she gave her notice after she suspected Duncan had been stealing from clients. Not only had he been writing checks to himself out of a client’s account, Rommel said she also believed he was bilking clients for hours he hadn’t worked.

“I felt like he was stealing from little old ladies, and that’s not nice,” she said.

She had accumulated evidence of Duncan’s wrongdoing over the months by checking the ledger against bank statements that Duncan had told her not to open and just file away. The ledger showed money going to the firm from the client’s account, but the statements showed the checks were written to Duncan. She had found 14 such checks over a three-year span, she said.

She agonized over whether to tell Greg Foster, the other lawyer she worked for.

“I wanted to be wrong,” she said in court. “I felt this would be an enormous thing. I was afraid John would commit suicide.”

Duncan’s demeanor had changed in the spring of 2007, she said. “He started being not nice to me,” she said, after having been for years before that, “always even keel, even keel.”

She’d noticed he’d been sending and receiving inappropriate, sexually explicit e-mail on the firm’s computer as well as visiting pornographic websites. She also learned her married boss had a gay relationship.

She was so afraid to reveal what she’d found that she started seeing a therapist, she said.

She kept a file under her desk with the incriminating information about Duncan.

“I was so afraid to be wrong and so afraid I’d be right,” she said.

She worried that if she didn’t tell anybody, she might be criminally liable in some way, she said.

“I thought about it for a long, long time.” Months went by.

“I knew I had to get out of Verrill Dana,” she said. “I knew I couldn’t work with John any more.”

She had given her notice, but her therapist told her to rescind the resignation. She would try to apply for disability instead.

“Whatever John decides to do about this, it won’t be your fault,” her therapist assured her.

On June 5, 2007, she worked up the courage to take her file of evidence to Foster.

She didn’t even tell her husband what she’d decided. She was afraid he might talk her out of it.

She got to work early, got her file and waited for Foster. When he arrived, she went into his office and said, rapid-fire: “Greg, I think I have evidence that John’s been stealing money from clients. I hope you can prove me wrong.”

She was shaking at the time, she said, as she trembled on the witness stand.

“I knew if I didn’t say it really fast, I was going to chicken out,” she said. “I was so scared.”

Foster took the file and asked her to repeat what she’d said, only slower.

Foster shared Rommel’s findings with Warren, who took the matter to the chairman of the firm’s executive board and, eventually, to the full board.

In August, two months after she’d given Foster her secret file, she talked to Warren, who told her Duncan had admitted his guilt and paid back the firm $77,500, money that Warren said he believed was meant for the firm that Duncan had directed to his own account.

The executive board had decided to let Duncan stay on.

“I said, ‘Wow, he’s really gonna stay even if it was misappropriated funds?’”

Warren gave her a check for four weeks’ retroactive pay, but she was turned down when she applied for workers’ compensation for her mental stress, something Warren had recommended she do.

It would be two more months before the firm began auditing Duncan’s accounts, where other discrepancies were found. Duncan was told to leave the firm.

At Monday’s hearing, Warren said that he had worried about pressing the issue too quickly because Duncan appeared to be in such a fragile mental state. He said he didn’t believe Duncan posed a risk to clients.

Defendant James Kilbreth III, who was chairman of the executive board at the time, said Tuesday that Warren’s investigation into Duncan’s wrongdoing wasn’t rushed the summer of 2007 because Duncan no longer had access to the account from which he’d been writing checks to himself.

Copyright (c) 2010, Sun Journal, Lewiston, Maine

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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