THE WINDMILLS OF JACK LEVINE, PART 2
In order to adequately protect the security of this country, it is requested that authority be granted to place a technical surveillance at his current residence and at any future address to which he may move."
Levine was not interested in talking with Soviet agents. He was trying to find a job. When he applied at the Department of Justice, however, Hoover blackballed him.
I got myself in one helluva fix with Hoover," Levine says. ÔHe made my life miserable for several years after that."
Time, of course, would prove Levine's allegations true. But in the early 1960s, he needed to escape Hoover's reach.
Reasoning that Hoover was most influential on the coasts, Levine, newly married, looked for an out-of-the-way place in between to start a law practice. He settled on Arizona.
Upon Levine's arrival in Phoenix, Hoover proved that his influence was far-reaching. When Levine applied for entry to the State Bar of Arizona, Hoover blocked his admission, charging that Levine had revealed national secrets after leaving the bureau.
The bar, then a clubby brotherhood, readily caved in to Hoover's objections and would not give Levine a license.
A handful of local attorneys, most notably Bob Begam, stood by Levine. Levine sued, and the Arizona Supreme Court ordered that he be admitted to the bar.
After his less-than-effusive welcome to Arizona, Levine settled in to practice, working for the small law firm of Langerman, Begam and Lewis-the firm that helped him in his fight for a law license-handling mostly personal-injury cases.
Personal-injury lawyers work what many derisively consider the shady side of the legal street. Rather than dabbling in high-profile criminal cases or multimillion-dollar corporate deals, personal-injury lawyers welcome the angry and wounded into their offices and try to determine if someone owes them for their pain.
That type of law nicely fitted Levine's view of the world, and he has continued in it for 30 years.
I take on the tough cases. I take on the unsavory clients," Levine says. A lot of people think that's poor judgment. I don't. I believe it's a standard of professionalism I believe in. They deserve their day."
After ten years of steady, if unspectacular, casework, an injured party walked into Levine's office with a complaint that again thrust Levine into the role of public crusader.
Robert Updike had resigned as an assistant Phoenix city prosecutor in early 1973. The reason, he told Levine, was that the office had willingly cooperated in a sweetheart deal to help then-Republican U.S. Senator Paul Fannin duck a drunk-driving charge.
Fannin had been stopped in Phoenix on November 17, 1972, and charged with driving while intoxicated. He showed a blood-alcohol level of .13, above the legal limit.
But in an unusual city court session, Fannin's lawyer was allowed to present affidavits from three doctors claiming that Fannin's gout medicine would have caused the Breathalyzer to register a high alcohol level incorrectly.
Although the city's own chemist characterized the gout argument as medically and technically impossible, the charge against Fannin was dismissed.
His principles stirred, Levine led a contingent of attorneys who appeared before the Phoenix City Council, demanding an investigation. Levine charged that the Fannin fix was bald-faced corruption.
I did not want to see Phoenix become instilled with corruption, and the Fannin case to me was a foot in that door," Levine says. It was so blatant, it offended me."
In the cold light of public exposure, Fannin was forced to plead guilty to drunk driving, pay a $100 fine and serve a day in jail.
Afterward, Levine split with the Langerman, Begam and Lewis firm. He claimed that the very attorneys who had helped him successfully sue the bar ten years earlier forced him out for stirring the pot in the Fannin affair.
The firm, however, denied that he was compelled to leave. What Levine described publicly as a departure on principle, one close onlooker says, was actually a timely retreat from a deteriorating situation.
Levine was not getting along well in the firm, the onlooker says, and used the Fannin affair as an excuse to make a graceful exit. If so, it certainly would not be the last time Levine had problems with partners.
Brief affiliations with other partners followed before Levine struck out on his own. As a solo practitioner, he joined the so-called dirty-shirt bar" made up of self-employed attorneys who eschewed the large downtown firms with their appointed offices and silver-plated clients.
Levine reveled in his vocation, teaching continuing legal-education courses for other lawyers, and actively promoting arbitration over courtroom battle.
Despite the fraternal associations, however, Levine was hardly part of the bar's inner circle, and was not widely regarded as a heavyweight litigator. He remained an outsider.
Behind his back, other attorneys began referring to him as Clean Levine," and the nickname was not meant as flattery. Levine developed a reputation, several attorneys say, as something of a sincere, honest but hapless kook.
He had a reputation as a nice guy, but a flake," says one attorney who has been familiar with Levine's work for more than 20 years. A guy who had bad judgment. A guy who didn't know how to handle a case."
Jack is a really engaging guy, a really likable guy, and he has enormous guts," another attorney says. But he was always just kind of storming the barricades and acting as if what was on the other side was pure evil."
If some segment of the legal community considered Levine well-intentioned but mediocre, none perceived him as a threat to the orderly ebb and flow of the courthouse. That began to change the day Anthony Abril walked into Levine's office looking to settle a score with Chip Harris.
LAWYERS GENERALLY do not enjoy clients who simultaneously consult their mother, God and psychics about their legal problems. It blurs the lines of authority. Who's going to call the shots?
Anthony Abril is such a client.
A heavyset, soft-spoken man, Abril acknowledges that few hear his drummer. Sometimes, even he misses a beat.
Since his suicide attempt, he says, I have become more intricate. You see, I'm a very religious person. I felt that I was dead, but God gave me the opportunity to be comatose for four days. I tend to jump from the things I say."
When he sought out Levine, Abril wanted two things-for Levine to take over the fight against Globe's appeal of the $1.3 million verdict, and to sue Chip Harris for betrayal.
Levine claims he initially didn't want to take the case, and with good reason.
Levine knew Harris too well. The two men had been partners in 1980, when Abril first hired Harris to handle his case. The partnership had ended badly after just 17 months, with disputes over money, cases and office furniture.
At one point while Harris was moving out of Levine's office, the police were called because of a disagreement over desks and typewriters.
Abril had chosen to stay with Harris when the partnership ended. Four years later, when Abril came to hire him, Levine was still suing Harris over the breakup, which several attorneys characterized as worse than many divorces.
It was a real controversy," says William Mahoney, a prominent local lawyer who at one point arbitrated the firm's division. ÔI've seen hundreds of matters of all kinds, and this was heated."
Observers say Levine and Harris were never a good match. Levine was a solid, conscientious plodder, not given to flashy courtroom tactics and not prone to measure his legal acumen by the amount of money he made.
The younger Harris was less motivated by the technicalities of law books than the adrenaline of battle. He thrived on the performance, and dearly wanted to establish himself as a formidable courtroom foe, which he has.
It just didn't seem like a natural alliance," says one attorney familiar with both men. It seemed like trouble."
To this day, Levine believes that Harris owes him more than $200,000 from the split. He has filed countless lawsuits against Harris concerning the breakup, some of which are still wending their way through the appeals process.
Harris, who is recovering from injuries suffered last month in a motorcycle accident, declined to discuss Levine or the breakup.
Given their disputes, Levine feared that his motives would be open to question if he sued his former partner on behalf of Abril. That fear has proven absolutely justified.
Whatever merits Abril's case might have, some attorneys believe that Levine saw an opportunity to use Abril, taking the case to indulge his wounded pride and mount a vendetta against Harris.
The client became a mere tool," William Piatt argues. Jack acted like a fool. [Abril's] feelings are hurt, and Jack Levine's feelings are hurt, because of Chip Harris. What have you got there? An alliance. An alliance to castrate Chip Harris."
But Abril was persistent, adamant that Levine go after Harris, Levine says. After himself approaching dozens of other attorneys and not finding one who would take Abril as a client, Levine says he felt an obligation on principle to take the case.
Differences aside, Levine thought he saw some serious ethical problems in the way Harris had treated Abril.
At issue was the secret agreement" between Harris and Piatt that Abril says he discovered only after his trial.
Typically, personal-injury lawyers work on a contingency basis. Above and beyond expenses, they make money if they win. The larger a verdict they can coax from a jury, the bigger their paycheck. Normally, that arrangement serves as incentive for an attorney to do well by his client.
But the deal Harris and Piatt entered into contorted the usual contingency arrangement. Effectively, it guaranteed that Harris could get a chunk of cash even if Abril never saw a dime.
Abril owed Johnson $95,000Ïthe $110,000 judgment Johnson had won against him minus $15,000 that Globe finally forked over.
Under their contingency fee arrangement, Piatt would get one-third of Johnson's payoff, assuming Abril ever paid it.
So, Harris and Piatt agreed that Piatt, with Johnson's permission, would hike his fee to 50 percent, and split the money with Harris.
Levine and several other attorneys who have reviewed the agreement believe it is patently unethical. In effect, they say, Harris was working for both Abril and Johnson, a clear conflict of interest.
In effect, Harris built himself a safety net. If a jury awarded Abril only $95,000 in his suit against Globe, the money would all go to Johnson, but Harris would still get a share of the legal fees.
The result was that Harris, apparently unknown to his client, had a hidden interest in making sure Johnson got paid, Levine says. Instead of being fully devoted to helping Abril get as much money as possible, Harris was also interested in helping Johnson.
If the interests of Johnson and Abril should diverge during the litigation-and at one point they did-Harris under some circumstances could benefit financially by pressing Johnson's interests over his client's.
The ethical sin would have been particularly heinous if Harris did not tell Abril about the agreement. Abril says Harris didn't, that he only found out about it after the fact because Johnson, the injured pedestrian, told him.
Harris has testified that he informed Abril of the deal, but has no documentation proving that Abril knew of, and agreed to, it. State ethical rules clearly state that such agreements must be written down and signed by the client, but there is no proof that that was ever done.
part 2 of 4
THE WINDMILLS OF JACK LEVINE THIS LAWYER... v4-01-92
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