Virginia Prosecutor Sanctioned For Sending Paralegal As Spy Into Opposing Counsel’s Office

Tony_Spencer-113x150Commonwealth’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

16 thoughts on “Virginia Prosecutor Sanctioned For Sending Paralegal As Spy Into Opposing Counsel’s Office”

  1. Spencer lives in my neighborhood and is driving on license plates that expired in July

  2. Darren:

    I think you give the Virginia State Bar too much credit. I have a working knowledge of this case but the back story is much more compelling once you realize Judge Ellis already granted a mistrial in this case for certain trial strategies used by the CA in the first trial. Spencer won the second case and the battle was on with Lafratta who was court appointed.

    Even more fascinating is that Spencer deposed former Prosecutor Harvey Latney, who is a wonderful lawyer, using the fact that an employee of his had stolen from Latney’s trust account. Latney immediately repaid the money but Spencer made it a campaign issue in one of the lowest blows in Va politics in my memory.

    It’s karma of the highest order that Spencer got hoisted on his petard. The bar just didn’t hoist high enough.

  3. Wow

    Had the state bar association or the Commonwealth of Virginia considered this was an unlawful search in violation of the 4th Amendment?

    Suspension of his bar license sounded fair for me.

  4. Rafflaw, I vote w/you on this.

    Frankly, you’re absolutely right! In Maryland (State v. Newman, 2002) an attorney testified against his own client in a conspiracy to murder trial. His testimony was not only appalling but also obviously untrue (and included things like, “Her eyes rolled back in her head as she spoke…” blah blah). The Court of Appeals then reversed because his testimony against his client should not have been permitted. (His testimony was given to protect HIMSELF from a malpractice claim; he was destroying his client’s credibility effectively so she wouldn’t be able to say anything about the many illegal things he had done during his representation of her.) So they retried her and got HIS SECRETARY to do it the second-time around. See? The attorney can’t testify against his client but his SECRETARY can? I got both horrified and thrilled at the same time. Why? Because now, legal secretary (which I am) can be the most lucrative job in the world. You get a gig in a law firm, get all the dope on a big case, then quit, give the info. to the opposition, and take home tax-free money, more than the judges make! WOW!

    I wish I knew all THIS 40 years ago!

  5. LAWFUL, adj. Compatible with the will of a judge having jurisdiction.

  6. THE GUY IS A GENIUS! I have to figure out a way to monetize this. Temp workers for legal offices at bargain rates with the real money coming from selling what they learn while working. It would be a great business until lawyers figure out I’m not just selling TO them!

  7. Sure this one shouldn’t be titled “Dumb and Dumber”…..

  8. He should have been disbarred. A reprimand is a slap on the wrist for a lawyer who not only has obligations under the ethical rules but is a government official.

  9. He should be terminated but he will not be. Business as usual in the USA.

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