by Kate Knable on Monday, Jul. 4, 2011 12:00 am
Tim Dudley, left, Blake Hendrix, Erin Cassinelli, John Wesley Hall, Chuck Banks, Jeff Rosenzweig and Jack Lassiter are central Arkansas' go-to lawyers for white-collar cases.
The FBI loosely defines white-collar crime as “lying, cheating and stealing,” and when the federal government suspects a business executive or government official of such a crime, it’s time to call a lawyer who knows his — or her — way around the federal court system.
Scores of Arkansas attorneys represent clients, white-collar and otherwise, in federal cases, but a few names crop up regularly in the most high-profile white-collar cases.
Arkansas Business recently interviewed nine of the best-known white-collar defenders, presented here in alphabetical order:
Charles A. Banks
Most of Chuck Banks’ caseload is civil, but if he wades into criminal defense, it is only for white-collar cases. In U.S. District Court, Banks has defended notable names such as Little Rock attorney Mona Mizell, former Sheridan Police Chief David Hooks and former North Little Rock Alderman Cary Gaines. And he stood by his client Lu Hardin earlier this year as the former president of the University of Central Arkansas pleaded guilty to bilking the college to settle gambling debts.
“It’s a really serious challenge to represent someone charged with white-collar crimes,” Banks, 64, said. “I didn’t set out to do it. I can’t even remember my first case, but I always liked the challenge.”
Banks graduated from the University of Arkansas School of Law at Fayetteville. He began practicing in 1974.
Early in his career, Banks participated in the pilot Arkansas public defender program and later served as a deputy prosecutor in Mississippi County. He was subsequently the U.S. Attorney in Little Rock from 1987-93.
Banks Law Firm PLLC is in Little Rock, with white-collar criminal defense comprising about 25 percent of his practice.
Banks said he tells clients to expect to pay $50,000 to $100,000 to fight white-collar charges, particularly if they plan to go to trial.
Often, people charged with white-collar crimes are shocked to find themselves indicted in federal court because they think of crime as a violent act or theft, Banks said.
He has represented clients without criminal records or even recent traffic tickets.
“It’s a shock to their system because sometimes they don’t realize the ramifications of some of the actions that they’re taking that could be violating federal law,” Banks said.
When choosing clients, Banks considers how plausible a person’s case is, whether he thinks he can help and how open the potential client is to building a trusting relationship with him throughout the stressful months of court proceedings.
“If you don’t believe in your client and their case, or the client doesn’t really believe in you, the jury will detect that in a minute,” Banks said.
He said his goal, even if the jury disagrees with his presentation of the case in the end, is to get jurors to deliberate seriously over the defense.
“I’m trying to represent a human being that’s in trouble as best I can,” Banks said. “They’re not just a criminal defendant with me. I tell clients, ‘Hey, listen, this is serious hand-to-hand combat in there.’ In federal court, it’s serious.”
Bill W. Bristow
Bill Bristow of Bristow & Richardson PLLC in Jonesboro is also a civil and criminal defense attorney.
More than half the criminal cases he tries are white collar.
“It’s kind of intriguing,” Bristow said. “You have the full power of the federal government directed against an individual. Everybody likes to try to help people and try to make what looks like an unfair fight be a fair fight.”
Bristow, 60, graduated from Harvard Law School in 1975 and has been practicing law in Jonesboro ever since. He now practices with his daughter, son and son-in-law.
“I just wanted to be a country lawyer. After starting out, I decided I liked going to court better than I liked writing deeds or contracts,” Bristow said.
After successfully defending in a few white-collar cases, the white-collar clients began steadily coming his way.
White-collar cases are “very difficult, time-consuming cases. In time, you do a few of them and the word kind of gets out,” Bristow said. “It wasn’t something I set out to do necessarily, but it’s something I found intriguing and always interesting.”
Among Bristow’s more famous clients were Neal Ainley and Charles Matthews, who were indicted as part of the long-running and wide-ranging Whitewater investigation of President Bill Clinton.
Bristow said his strengths as an attorney lie in his ability to simplify complex concepts and communicate well with Arkansas juries.
White-collar cases, which often have to do with allegations of misused collateral, making false statements in a bankruptcy or other types of fraud, can require “this enormous number of documents,” Bristow said. Both the prosecutor and defense attorney work to focus on key issues so the jury can make sense of the facts, he said.
“Each side has reasons for making the case as simple as it can be,” Bristow said.
In just six years of practicing law under the tutelage of the legendary Jack Lassiter (see below), Erin Cassinelli has already forged a placed for herself in Arkansas white-collar criminal defense.
Cassinelli, 31, was among the attorneys who defended Randeep Mann during the restitution part of his trial. Mann, a Russellville doctor, was convicted in 2010 of conspiring to detonate the car bomb that maimed and nearly killed Dr. Trent Pierce, chairman of the Arkansas Medical Board.
Cassinelli also defended Kelly Shrum, a Pine Bluff doctor who was convicted of misbranding and health care fraud in March.
She currently represents Kelly Harbert, the former One Bank & Trust vice president who is facing charges of bank fraud, money laundering and aggravated identity theft in Little Rock’s U.S. District Court.
Cassinelli said she originally thought she would use her undergraduate work in finance as a corporate lawyer after graduating from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law in 2005. But once she met and clerked for Lassiter, she found she loved criminal defense work. She is now Lassiter’s partner.
"I think you have to really like helping people to do this,” Cassinelli said. “Money’s important, but I didn’t want to stay late to help the rich guy get more money.”
She and Lassiter regularly take complex Medicaid and Medicare fraud cases and are willing to spend hours studying the details of unfamiliar industries to best represent their clients.
She said she believes her strengths as an attorney are her curiosity and writing skills, as well as her ability to identify with clients.
“You have to recognize the fallacies in everybody. Federal law doesn’t see the human being much of the time. We do really like our clients and have a lot of empathy. They never thought they’d be [under indictment],” Cassinelli said.
Timothy O. Dudley
Civil and criminal defense lawyer Tim Dudley started working white-collar cases with now-federal judge Bill Wilson in 1985.
Dudley, 57, has practiced law since 1982. He is a graduate of the UALR School of Law.
He has defended the likes of former state Sen. Mike Bearden; Little Rock lawyer Aaron Jones, who was convicted last fall of arson and mail fraud; and Sangeeta Mann, wife of Randeep Mann. Dudley is currently representing Forrest City lawyer Mike Easley.
“I like white-collar because, generally, your client is more intelligent and better educated,” Dudley said. “They will work hard on their defense.”
He likes criminal defense work, particularly in federal court, because it is challenging and “everyone deserves a good defense,” Dudley said.
“I like the idea of standing between the defendant and the government. When the federal government indicts you, it’s David and Goliath,” he said. “My job is to hold the prosecutor to his burden of proof.”
White-collar cases tried in federal court interest him more than most cases tried in state courts since the former often “raise significant, unresolved legal issues … because federal criminal law is getting more complicated,” Dudley said.
He said he works with an eye toward appeals to make sure his clients’ rights are protected and prosecutors are being careful.
Dudley estimated that white-collar defense in federal court can cost $50,000 to $450,000.
John C. Everett
Fayetteville defense lawyer John Everett said he accepts clients based on whether they can pay, how interesting their cases are and how busy he is at the time.
Everett, 65, said he takes about two white-collar cases per year. Some of his better known clients include Robert E. Hey Jr., former Wal-Mart vice president of operations development, and former state Sen. Nick Wilson.
Everett graduated from the UA School of Law in 1970, served four years as a Navy lawyer and then went into private practice. He is a partner in the firm Everett Wales & Comstock.
“We do any kind of litigation that we think we’re smart enough to do,” he said.
John Wesley Hall
While only about 5 percent of his cases are white-collar, John Wesley Hall has had his share.
The Little Rock attorney has tried mortgage and railroad retirement fraud cases, public corruption and more.
“I’m more associated with drug cases. Drugs, sex and violence,” Hall, 63, said.
While the number of white-collar cases he has handled may be small, the amount of time he has poured into them is not.
“White-collar can be a black hole of time and money. They’re paper heavy and they’re really quite confusing. One white-collar case can take as much time as a capital [murder] case,” Hall said. “I think juries in white-collar cases kind of get mind-numbed by evidence. The government kitchen sinks you with paper.”
Hall graduated from the UA School of Law in 1973. He started his law career working in the state prosecutor’s office in Little Rock, and then opened his private practice in 1980.
Hall said he burned out working in the prosecutor’s office and naturally turned to criminal defense.
“I was one of those ’60s idealists who believed in keeping the government honest,” he said.
He recently defended former North Little Rock Alderman Sam Baggett in a public corruption case, and he represented Gene Cauley, who was stripped of his Arkansas law license and sent to federal prison after admitting to a New York federal judge that he stole more than $9 million from clients.
Hall currently represents a defendant in a $100 million penny-stock fraud case in Nevada.
Hall said he is not selective about the cases he accepts beyond whether the client can pay what he asks.
“Clients can be annoying or high maintenance. Life’s too short … If you have to put up with them, you might as well get paid for it,” he said.
In his experience, white-collar defense can cost up to $750,000.
“Human nature is such that I’ll always have a job,” Hall said.
J. Blake Hendrix
Blake Hendrix has been nurturing his fascination for criminal defense since those were the only classes that intrigued him in law school.
Hendrix, 50, carries a caseload that is about half white-collar and half federal and state drug-related or violent crimes.
He has practiced in Little Rock for the past 25 years.
“The older I get, the more I prefer white-collar and death penalty,” Hendrix said.
“My favorite part is cross-examining their expert. It’s almost not as fun to cross-examine a lay witness.”
White-collar cases provide daily opportunities for becoming an expert on, for example, medical coding or the trucking industry, for the benefit of clients, Hendrix said.
“You learn new disciplines,” he said. “Our clients become our partners in our cases. It’s all about the client.”
Hendrix is an alumnus of the UA School of Law. He began his law career in the criminal division of the state Attorney General’s office, spent 10 years working with the late Bill McArthur — whom Hendrix called “the grandfather of criminal defense lawyers” — and has spent the past 11 years in solo practice.
Hendrix has worked on white-collar cases such as the appeal of W.A. “Tony” Rand, the North Little Rock theater owner who recently pleaded guilty to more federal fraud charges in Texas. Hendrix, too, has been involved in Randeep Mann’s case.
He also defended state Rep. Ben McGee, who was convicted of extortion and tax fraud in 1998.
The Little Rock attorneys who take on white-collar cases form something of a community and refer clients to each other, he said.
“We all get along very well and trust each other. Essentially, we are in competition, but federal clients come in twos and threes,” Hendrix said.
More than half the cases defense attorney Jack Lassiter’s firm takes involve white-collar crimes.
Lassiter said he and Cassinelli, his partner, probably handle more Medicaid and Medicare fraud cases than any other lawyers in Arkansas.
For Lassiter and Cassinelli, learning the details of different industries is part of the pleasure of white-collar defense work. Cassinelli once spent a full day observing how a pharmacy works for insight into a case, Lassiter said.
“It’s fun,” Lassiter said. “We find the time. If something needs to be done, we do it.”
Lassiter’s experience with white-collar cases began early in his nearly four-decade-long career.
In 1978, he and Bill McArthur handled the state’s first Medicaid case that went to trial.
Other notable white-collar crime cases Lassiter has dealt with include the Whitewater and the Nick Wilson cases. He also defended state Rep. Lloyd George against mail fraud charges, and he represented John Mills, the former CEO of Affiliated Foods Southwest, in his decision to plead guilty to bank fraud and to testify against the former CFO, Lex Martinez.
Lassiter, 63, graduated from the UA School of Law in 1973.
When he began his career, the Arkansas Legislature had just passed a new criminal code and it was a stimulating time to be an attorney, Lassiter said.
“I came out of the ’60s. I really was politicized and wanted to be involved. It was all fresh and all new,” he said. “It was just an exciting time to be in the field.”
Jeff Rosenzweig is both a trial lawyer and an appeals specialist.
“I think you gain by doing both because, if you do appeals, you have a much greater perspective on how things would look to an appellate court if you lose in trial,” he said.
In the trial part of his practice, Rosenzweig specializes in violent and white-collar crime cases. The difference between the two is marked.
“There’s a lot more nuance and ambiguity in a white-collar case than in a murder or a rape case. In a white-collar case, it’s much easier accidentally to break the law … in a way you rarely see in a homicide or sexual assault prosecution,” he said. “You’re dealing not only with law but also with regulations that are often written in a very complicated, confusing fashion. It’s not hard to accidentally fall out of compliance with regulations.”
Rosenzweig said defendants in a white-collar crime case should expect to spend at least $25,000 on their defense.
Murrey Grider, the law partner of former Sen. Nick Wilson, former Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker and Little Rock life insurance executive Frank B. Whitbeck are among Rosenzweig’s high-profile white-collar clients.
Rosenzweig, 58, graduated from Southern Methodist University’s law school in Dallas in 1977. He has been in private practice in Little Rock for 30 years.
Rosenzweig said the criminal defense attorneys locally are a “close-knit” group.
Since a lawyer cannot represent more than one client in the same case, they refer defendants to each other. They also talk legal issues regularly, while avoiding privileged case information, he said.
“To me, it’s not competition in the sense of Kmart versus Wal-Mart or Target,” he said. “Even though you’re in the same field, you’re cooperating.”
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