Commonwealth’s Attorney Anthony G. “Tony” Spencer of Caroline County seems to view “paralegal” to mean “extralegal.” The Virginia State Bar disciplines Spencer this week with a public reprimand after sending a paralegal undercover to spy on an attorney to discredit a statement he made in court.
The entire controversy was bizarre from the start. It began in a 2010 trial in which Spencer was the prosecutor and John LaFratta the defense lawyer. In his closing argument, LaFratta played the underdog card and told the jury that his client was up against the power of the county while he had “just me, a couple of law books, a couple of brown binders jam-packed full of papers.” Spencer countered not unexpectedly by noting that “Mr. LaFratta would have you believe that he has no one working in his office. He doesn’t have a secretary, a paralegal and a partner that he works with.”
Now, many judges would not have allowed the first comment to be made, but most would have allowed the response as fair game. It was of course entirely irrelevant on both sides to the case. However, LaFratta then filed a complaint with the Virginia State Bar that Spencer had misrepresented his resources to the jury. It was in my view a weak, and arguably frivolous, claim. Yet, Spencer then showed that high-ranking individuals are more often undone by their response to a charge than the charge itself. The Board saw no violation in the courtroom but nailed Spencer on his decision to enlist a paralegal as a spy.
Spencer used a paralegal who posed as a student conducting a survey. He instructed her not to disclose her position with his office. The paralegal was taking paralegal classes at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College. She proceeded to question LaFratta’s secretary about resources in the office. Spencer was compelled to disclose the subterfuge when asked in a post-trial motion to identify anyone who came to LaFratta’s office to gather information about his workplace. In his 2011 letter to Caroline Circuit Judge Joseph J. Ellis, he again did not disclose that the women was an employee but instead identified her as a Sargeant Reynolds student. In front of the court, Spencer defended his actions and asked the court “What was the harm? Where is the harm in this?”
The bar panel found Spencer violated a rule barring lawyers from failing to disclose a fact necessary to correct a misapprehension and a requirement that lawyers endeavor to see that non-lawyer subordinates conduct themselves properly.
After the public sanction, Spencer has changed his tune and said “I made a mistake. My intentions were good, but the method I chose to find the truth was inappropriate. When you make a mistake, there are three things you can do: own up to it, try to fix it, and learn from it. I have learned from this mistake, and I will not make a similar one.” Given his litigation before the court, it appeared to be a rather slow learning curve.
Source: Times Dispatch