Amid the orgy of publicity last week following the made-for-television police raids of the Aldabbagh family's topless- and nude-club empire, the arrest of Phoenix attorney Joe Romley was barely a footnote.
But while time will tell if police have unearthed the massive money-laundering and racketeering operation they claim, Romley's arrest is already drawing incredulous reaction within the legal community. And some attorneys fear it is an outrageous scare tactic intended to warn lawyers off cases involving alleged crime leaders.
Romley, 51-year-old cousin of Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley, is a respected civil lawyer and longtime member of an established Phoenix firm, Robbins and Green. He was caught in the sweep of the so-called Aladdin" investigation because he did some legal work for Omar Aldabbagh, painted as a racketeering kingpin by investigators.
Exactly what crime Romley supposedly committed remains unknown. He was arrested on an open-ended charge of illegally conducting an enterprise and released. Police descended on his office with a search warrant and carted away his files and records relating to Aldabbagh.
No formal charges have been filed against him, however, or against any of the 37 others arrested in the raids.
Instead, Romley and the other defendants wait in limbo as investigators sift through thousands of seized documents and decide what charges to file against whom.
But simply by arresting Romley, his colleagues in the legal community fear, police and prosecutors have crossed a sacred line in trying to hold legitimate attorneys criminally accountable for the sins of their clients.
The issue of attorneys' being charged along with their clients has been simmering nationally for years. Increasingly, criminal defense attorneys claim, prosecutors are using racketeering statutes to go after lawyers in an effort to deprive alleged kingpins of legal counsel.
The practice, attorneys say, flies in the face of any defendant's right to counsel, and exposes attorneys to prosecution-or at least public embarrassment-for doing precisely what they are supposed to do: telling clients how to remain within the law.
It is the practice of prosecutors...to try to discourage professionals-lawyers, accountants, appraisers-from providing services to people they view as unsavory," says attorney Paul Eckstein of Brown and Bain, who has known Romley since high school. It's just firing one across the bow of all lawyers saying, `You better be careful, folks, because you're going to be arrested and your name is going to be besmirched.'"
Investigators say Romley's arrest was more than just a warning shot, but Lieutenant David Gonzales, who ramrodded the Arizona Department of Public Safety's nine-month investigation of the Aldabbagh enterprises, says he cannot comment on what criminal charges Romley may ultimately face. He was the attorney for Omar [Aldabbagh] and the charges will stem from his involvement as his attorney," Gonzales says.
Steve Tseffos, spokesman for Attorney General Grant Woods, whose office will prosecute the cases, also said he could not elaborate on what charges Romley might face, because investigators are still piecing together the evidence.
We have a lot of seized stuff," Tseffos says. Now you go through it and see if you have enough evidence to support a criminal case."
But if investigators still have to determine whether they have a case, why was Romley arrested, attorneys ask?
I found it somewhat strange to learn they arrested [Romley] and apparently had no intent of filing charges against him at the time," says Philip Robbins of Robbins and Green, the firm where Romley works.
Gonzalez says police had probable cause to arrest Romley and the others, even if the formal charges they may face have yet to be determined. There were numerous reasons why we did the arrests," Gonzales says. A lot of the suspects involved in this case were transient by nature. We wanted to ID all these people. We wanted to get them mugged and fingerprinted."
Investigators didn't think Romley was likely to blow town, Gonzales said, but we felt that if we were going to arrest Joe Blow the driver from Iraq, it would be discriminatory not to arrest Joe Romley, the big-time defense attorney."
So what did Romley do for Aldabbagh that warranted his arrest? Romley did not return repeated telephone calls, and his attorney, Steve Dichter, would not comment.
But Philip Robbins of Robbins and Green, where Romley has worked for 15 years, says Romley only helped Aldabbagh from time to time with routine legal work. This is supported by records at Maricopa County Superior Court, which indicate that Romley was not even Aldabbagh's primary civil attorney. In four cases in which Aldabbagh has been sued over the past few years, Romley was his attorney in only two of them.
Romley was not an officer or director of any of the myriad companies Aldabbagh set up to conduct his business, Robbins says. It was simply straight-up corporate-type work involving forming corporations and doing zoning work," Robbins says.
Work for Aldabbagh made up only a minuscule" part of Romley's duties at the firm, which include a range of corporate, divorce and civil work, Robbins says.
Both Robbins and Eckstein find it hard to believe that Romley crossed any legal lines in his dealings with Aldabbagh.
This is a guy who I would describe as an extremely hardworking, ethical, upright, decent guy," says Eckstein of Romley.
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When fallout from the case finally settles, Robbins says he does not believe investigators will find anything to prosecute Romley for. My guess is he probably isn't going to be charged," Robbins says.
But the taint of having been arrested along with Aldabbagh in a case that the Phoenix media immediately whipped into a sex empire" crackdown may have been all investigators wanted to accomplish, Eckstein says.
If you're going to read your name in the newspaper as being connected with someone, or be arrested in your office and have your office ransacked, that's a pretty good way to discourage competent legal counsel for people who may be living on the edge," Eckstein says.
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