Longform

THE WINDMILLS OF JACK LEVINE, PART 3

I would not enter into that agreement as a lawyer in a thousand years, period," attorney David Gage, a seasoned member of the state's personal-injury bar, would later testify. Mr. Harris has a clear conflict of interest under this agreement, and it is an intolerable conflict of interest, in my opinion, that no attorney should get himself into."

Even Peter Jarosz, a volunteer state bar counsel who is handling disciplinary proceedings against Levine, conceded in a brief that [i]f, as Mr. Abril claims, the agreement was made without his consent, then perhaps some sort of ethical violation occurred."

Harris declined to discuss the fee agreement.
Piatt, the other party to the deal, argues that it was not only ethically correct, but served Abril's interests.

Without the arrangement, Piatt says, Harris would have had no interest in taking Abril's case. Although Johnson and Abril were initially legal adversaries, they became allies at the point Abril sued Globe, and everyone's interests would be served if Harris could win the largest judgment possible against the insurance company.

To do that, Harris needed to be able to argue that Abril's debt to Johnson had caused him anguish, and driven him to attempt suicide. Far from being his enemy, Johnson would be a help to Abril in his lawsuit, Piatt argues.

Chip had to have some incentive to take the case," Piatt says. I don't see it as a conflict. I see it as a concurrence of interest."

Other attorneys, however, say Piatt's argument rings hollow. Harris had other, more accepted, methods of collecting legal fees without cutting a deal behind Abril's back.

The fee agreement clearly raised a question of propriety. Levine was determined to answer it. Harris soon handed Levine more ammunition to use in his quest.

Even though he had been fired and told to stay away from the case, Harris played one more card in the game.

While the $1.3 million verdict was on appeal, the clock was running on Johnson's claim against Abril. By law, judgments lapse after five years if they are not collected or renewed.

Piatt, concerned that his legal right to demand payment from Abril might slip away as the Globe case dragged on, called Harris and asked him when the judgments were due to expire.

Harris, who had Piatt's files on the case, told him, and then sent Piatt a letter telling him to immediately" renew one of the judgments.

It appeared to Levine and Abril that Harris would have only one reason to urge the renewal-Johnson had to collect money in order for Harris to collect his share of the fee. The conflict of interest, Levine felt, had indeed induced Harris to betray his former client.

If the judgments against Abril lapsed, Levine says, any money Abril won in his lawsuit would be his, free and clear. Abril would owe Johnson nothing, and Harris would not get his share of Piatt's fee.

That letter cost Anthony $95,000," Levine says.
Other attorneys disagree. They say it was in Abril's interest to renew the judgments, because a $95,000 debt was the best proof he had that Globe's indifference had harmed him.

Whatever the legal ramifications, another serious question had been raised about Harris' ethics, particularly since his own financial interest was directly served by renewing the judgments. Levine felt he was well-armed to go after his former partner.

With Levine's help, Abril filed complaints against Harris with the State Bar of Arizona. The complaints were dismissed, but not without a curious episode that confirmed Abril's belief that Piatt and Harris, and possibly the State Bar, were conspiring to cheat him.

Right off the bat, a bar attorney called Piatt about the complaint-not as part of an investigation, but to ask his advice on how it should be handled. It was equivalent, in practice if not degree, to asking the guys from whom Charlie Keating was buying real estate with depositors' money whether they all should be investigated by the feds.

Piatt says the bar inquiry was a coincidence. At the time, he was serving on the bar's fee-arbitration committee and would occasionally field questions about fee arrangements.

Piatt says that he promptly informed the bar attorney that he had an interest in the case, and advised her to have Abril's complaint investigated.

Piatt never should have been called for his advice, agrees Chief Bar Counsel Harriet Turney. But she says no harm was done.

That should not have happened," Turney says. But just because Bill Piatt would say yea or nay or anything else doesn't affect what the bar would do. He wouldn't have had anything to do with the decision."

The bar's decision to reject Abril's complaint was the first in an as-yet- unbroken string of defeats.

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David Pasztor