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Law Firm's Dual Role Questioned

•  Practice Focuses     updated  2008/03/14 10:26

Mayer Morganroth's deft legal skills have matched the outsized personalities of onetime clients Dr. Jack Kevorkian, John DeLorean and Geoffrey Fieger.

Now some legal experts, Detroit City Council members and others say he and his law firm, Morganroth & Morganroth, have overreached by representing Christine Beatty against potential criminal charges in the text message scandal while also defending her and other officials, including Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, in a lawsuit stemming from the 2003 slaying of stripper Tamara Greene.

"A first-year law student has been around long enough to know the conflicts and problems" in handling both matters, said Detroit attorney James Howarth.

Those raising questions about the Southfield firm's work in both cases ask how its lawyers can effectively look out for the legal interests of Beatty -- the mayor's top aide, who resigned in January -- while separately representing a city and mayor she may one day be forced to testify against?

"This may be a precarious situation if there may be some finger-pointing," said University of Detroit Mercy law professor Larry Dubin.

"The city would be better represented by separate counsel," said Dubin, who teaches legal ethics and has helped oversee the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission. "What's best for the city may be different than what's best for Christine Beatty."

Councilmember Sheila Cockrel on Tuesday asked the city Law Department and Bill Goodman, the council's independent lawyer, to examine any possible conflicts. She also asked the council's research division to consider rule changes to require council approval of outside lawyers hired to represent the city and its employees.

Mayer Morganroth is out of town, but his son and law partner Jeffrey Morganroth said Monday there is no conflict "because of the nature of the two cases."

The federal suit, brought on behalf of Greene's son, alleges city officials failed to investigate her death "and that has nothing to do with text messages, nor the underlying issues of the police whistle-blower case," Jeffrey Morganroth said.

"There is no conflict; we don't anticipate one," he said, acknowledging that there are no charges pending. "However, if new matters and issues arise, we will reevaluate the situation."

The potential conflict is rooted in a lawyer's obligation to serve a client without competing interests.

"This is a real hornet's nest," said John Brennan, a Cooley Law School professor. "On its face, there are all kinds of situations that could arise where what's good for one client may be bad for the other."

However, Brennan said the seeming conflicts could evaporate if the civil suit is too weak to go to trial. "If this is nothing more than wild allegations and the case doesn't survive early motions, there may be no conflicts," he said.

Yet, Dubin cautioned that if both Beatty and Kilpatrick are charged with perjury or other crimes in the text message scandal, it is "certainly possible that her interests may be adverse to the city or mayor."

Kilpatrick and Beatty are under criminal investigation by Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy after text messages revealed by the Free Press showed they lied in their testimony last year in a whistle-blower suit by former police Officers Gary Brown and Harold Nelthrope. The cops said they were forced from their jobs because their roles in an inquiry of the mayor's security team and a rumored 2002 party at the Manoogian Mansion might have also uncovered Kilpatrick's affair with Beatty.

Greene, who used the stage name Strawberry, was alleged to have performed at such a party and was alleged to have been assaulted by the mayor's wife, Carlita Kilpatrick. Greene was shot to death in 2003. The slaying is unsolved.

Mayer Morganroth is widely recognized as one of the Detroit area's top lawyers, known for shaping cases by meticulous pretrial motions. He showed up in court with Beatty this week in an unrelated case, saying she would assert her Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination if called to testify in a case brought by municipal retirees against the city.

During a council meeting Tuesday, President Pro Tem Monica Conyers suggested the city consider dismissing Morganroth in the Greene case since he is also representing Beatty. "He can't represent both of us. I want him to just go."

Sheila Cockrel said she was "very concerned and troubled" by the firm's multiple representations and by its fee, which she said was negotiated in a way to avoid council review.

Morganroth & Morganroth was initially hired by the city Law Department for the civil case for $24,950, an amount $50 below the level that would trigger council approval.

Jeffrey Morganroth said the firm's fee to represent Beatty during the criminal probe is not being paid by the city. He said her defense was being paid privately but would not elaborate.

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