Cook: Learning a lesson in lawyering

Cook: Learning a lesson in lawyering

August 3rd, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Here's a lawyer joke you haven't heard.

Six years ago, a detective named Pat Henry was working for the Monroe County Sheriff's Office. There'd been a murder. And Henry had a hunch that a man named Ed Dawson might be to blame.

Fortunately for Henry, Dawson was already in prison for drug possession. And burglary. And vandalism.

Someone cooked up an undercover plan to find out just how guilty Dawson was.

Unfortunately for Henry -- he would lose his job, house and reputation because of it -- the plan was unthinkably unconstitutional.

"So egregious," one judge would later declare.

Call it the Fake Lawyer Scheme.

Henry began posing -- interchangeably -- as two fictitious attorneys named Paul Harris and Neil Fink. Their firm was based in Detroit. One of them spoke Sicilian. They were rumored to have mob connections.

And they were totally and completely imaginary.

It was like going undercover: Henry used the Fake Lawyers to try to gain information from Dawson. He sent Dawson fake letters on fake stationery with fake letterheads. Had Dawson's cellmate pretend to be a client of Harris and Fink's. Pretended that Harris had somehow arranged for Dawson's impounded truck to be released. Dawson fell for it and eventually tried to give up his court-appointed attorney, believing he was now represented by Harris and Fink.

Dawson was even indicted for murder on false evidence obtained during the Fake Lawyer Scheme.

"Abhorrent," one judge said. "Reprehensible."

The Fake Lawyer Scheme violated Dawson's sacred right to counsel. It also led to a dismissal of the charges against him, as Dawson, successfully, appealed. (Plus, it's illegal to pose as a licensed professional, like a lawyer.)

Want to know the funny part of this?

Four days ago, Pat Henry took the Tennessee bar exam.

He wants to become -- of all things -- a lawyer.

Know what's hilarious?

I think he might become a really good one.

• The Fall and Return of Pat Henry

After the Fake Lawyer Scheme and Dawson's appeal, Henry hit rock bottom. He'd left the sheriff's office, lost another job at a bank, then his house. His reputation was shot. His name was not Paul Harris or Neil Fink, but mud.

So he decides to go to ... law school?

At Lincoln Memorial University, he makes the dean's list. Twice. Graduates, then asks for an interview with a firm in Knoxville -- get this -- whose mission is fighting corruption.

They fall head over heels for the guy.

"We hired Pat because he would have a unique understanding of the ethical dilemmas faced by law enforcement officers every day," said Margaret Held, of Held Law Firm. "Pat seemed like the best candidate to understand what corruption looks like and how to challenge it."

Henry's detective past exquisitely prepares him for his legal future. Kind of like a former smoker being able to help you quit -- he knows the pains, the withdrawals, the temptations. Pat has seen firsthand the dark side of law enforcement.

He knows he messed up. Knows the Fake Lawyer Scheme wasn't just wrong, but terribly wrong.

So why didn't he know it back then?

And with that question, we reach the real punch (in the gut) line of this whole story.

• Need legal advice? Call a lawyer.

When cops have legal questions, they don't ask other cops. They go to the legal experts: the district attorney's office.

That's just what Henry did.

"District Attorney Steve Bebb and Assistant District Attorney Jim Stutts were made aware that an undercover investigation was going on," Judge Amy Reedy declared in 2011.

The 10th Judicial District Attorney General's Office -- Bebb and Stutts, specifically -- had knowledge of the Fake Lawyer Scheme. You'd think they'd tell Henry to stop. Wave him off. Teach him why such an operation was unconstitutional.

Nope.

They gave him the green light.

"Jim Stutts gave legal advice to detectives during that undercover investigation," a TBI agent testified.

Court documents show the DA's office -- Bebb, who's now resigned as DA, and Stutts, who's running for mayor of Monroe County on Aug. 7 -- were made aware and gave legal advice during the Fake Lawyer Scheme.

"The knowledge of the undercover operation ... creates an appearance of impropriety on the part of the Office of the District Attorney General serving the 10th Judicial District," Reedy declared.

Knowledge implies permission. Bebb and Stutts were the legal experts, far more capable and responsible than Henry in recognizing the wrongness of the Fake Lawyer Scheme.

"The public record is clear," Henry said, "that the DA's office knew about it from Day One."

At one point, the TBI investigated Henry's role in this. It chose not to prosecute him.

"Through the course of my career, I've seen both the good and bad in the justice system," Henry said. "The only way anybody can affect a change in the system is to be a lawyer. That's why I went to law school."

In October, he'll know if he passed the bar exam.

Stutts? Bebb?

They have yet to face any formal investigation or prosecution for this.

If they do, they'll likely need a good attorney.

I hope they hire two guys out of Detroit named Paul Harris and Neil Fink. They've got mob connections. One of them speaks Sicilian.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.