Sunday, October 17, 2004
Lawyer talks about 'huge ordeal'
Now that charges have been dismissed against Richard Burrow, R. Louis Harrison is the only person who has gotten punished in the case.
Bedford attorney R. Louis Harrison didn't know what he was getting himself into when he agreed to do a little legal work for the National D-Day Memorial Foundation in 1996.
For rendering a faulty legal opinion on behalf of the foundation and faxing it to a bank official in 2000, Harrison got threatened with federal prosecution, a six-year prison sentence and the loss of his law license.
U.S. Attorney John Brownlee held Harrison up as a key witness in his decision to seek charges against former National D-Day Memorial Foundation president Richard Burrow for a second time in March 2003.
But now that Brownlee has asked for charges against Burrow to be dismissed in the wake of a second trial that ended in a hung jury, Harrison is the only person who has gotten punished in the case.
Harrison, 45, made an agreement with prosecutors in March 2003 to avoid prosecution for wire fraud for the faulty legal opinion he wrote on behalf of the foundation to obtain a loan from a California bank to match state funds.
As part of the deal, Harrison had to go on probation for a year, report the matter to the state bar and pay a fine of $12,500. He also chose to resign a position as a substitute judge in Bedford and still faces the potential loss of his law license if the state bar decides he violated the bar's ethics code.
Speaking to the media for the first time about the case, Harrison has also now said that he and prosecutors "differed on the accuracy" of the statement he signed implicating Burrow as part of the deal. Brownlee did not return a call for comment on the Harrison case.
Harrison, a married father of four who has practiced in Bedford since 1987, described the experience of facing prosecution, the public disclosure of the deal he made with prosecutors and the subsequent effect on him and his family as "a huge ordeal."
"You thought you were doing something good, and it ends up trashing your reputation," said Harrison, once a part-time prosecutor in Bedford who specializes in family law and has done a lot of free work for Legal Aid. "That was kind of hard to swallow."
Harrison did some of his work for the foundation for free. He charged the foundation $140 for the legal opinion that got him into this situation, and that cost was mainly to cover office expenses.
The deal with prosecutors came about six months before his oldest son was about to start college at Virginia Tech. Harrison borrowed the $12,500 for his fine from relatives rather than dip into his son's tuition fund. He has not yet been able to pay the money back.
Meanwhile, other community leaders have vouched for Harrison's standing in Bedford.
"He has a reputation for honesty and integrity," Bedford County Commonwealth's Attorney Randy Krantz said of Harrison. "I think he will continue to have a high degree of trust and credibility before the courts here."
"He's not a lawyer who is in it for the money," said the Rev. Rod Miller, a former youth minister at Bedford Baptist Church, who described Harrison and his family as the most dedicated church family he has known. "He's in the business for the right reason: to help people."
And it appears that more people than just Harrison are questioning the wisdom of helping out a foundation like the National D-Day Memorial as a result of the Burrow case and what has happened to Harrison.
Former D-Day foundation board member and former Bedford Mayor Mike Shelton, who testified at both of Burrow's trials, said the stress of the multiyear legal battle has soured any future interest on his part in getting involved in a nonprofit foundation.
"The whole chilling message of this is ... no good deed goes unpunished," said Shelton. "My sense of charity has kind of gone by the wayside. I've lost the fire in my belly."
Harrison agreed to work for the foundation in 1996 because the foundation needed a lawyer but couldn't pay for one, he said. He also made the decision in part because Shelton's wife is Harrison's assistant, but he said he would have done it anyway.
Harrison occasionally sat in on board meetings but wasn't involved in the foundation's day-to-day activities, Shelton said.
"He would offer assistance as it was called upon, but there wasn't a significant need," Shelton said.
Harrison issued the faulty legal opinion at the center of the case in 2000. Burrow had asked Harrison for the legal opinion to secure $4.225 million in matching grants from the state.
Harrison didn't realize he made a mistake at the time, he now says. He stopped working for the foundation in 2000, shortly after he rendered the legal opinion.
Then in the summer of 2001, shortly after Burrow's resignation, the foundation's debt of more than $5 million became clear. That fall, Brownlee's office began an investigation into the case.
Harrison said he gave federal authorities investigating the case access to his files early on in the investigation. Harrison said he also testified at the grand jury about the case.
In June 2002, Burrow was charged with four counts of fraud in connection with his fund raising for the $25 million memorial. Harrison was subpoenaed by both the prosecution and the defense at Burrow's first trial in December 2002, but was never called by either side, he said.
"I never felt I was a government witness; I never felt I was Richard's witness; I was just a witness," Harrison said.
"I didn't have it in for Richard," Harrison added.
The first trial resulted in a hung jury.
Between the first trial and Brownlee's announcement that he planned to seek new charges against Burrow, Harrison met with federal authorities and was told he faced a felony wire-fraud charge, the loss of his law license and a six-year prison sentence.
After speaking with federal authorities, Harrison realized that he himself had made a mistake in relying on the wrong documentation when certifying to a California bank that the National D-Day foundation met the requirements under Virginia law to secure a bridge loan from the bank.
In March 2003, Harrison signed an agreement with federal prosecutors to avoid prosecution.
But he takes issue with the idea that he would not have cooperated in the investigation if he had not made an agreement with prosecutors. He pointed out that he had cooperated from the outset of the investigation.
Harrison also acknowledged that the statement he signed to avoid prosecution is different from his testimony when he was called as a prosecution witness at Burrow's second trial last month.
The main difference between the statement Harrison signed and Harrison's testimony at Burrow's second trial is that the statement says Harrison knew at the time he rendered his legal opinion that the foundation was not in compliance with Virginia law in seeking the loan and still sent the opinion to the bank.
The statement reads in part, "I ignored clear warnings and signs that Burrow was intentionally defrauding the state of Virginia in 2000."
Harrison testified at Burrow's second trial that he didn't know his opinion was wrong at the time.
Prosecutors have also argued that Burrow provided Harrison with the faulty information as part of his fraud. But Harrison testified that he got the financial information himself and that he repeatedly told prosecutors that before the trial.
"I don't want to blame Richard Burrow for the mistake. I retrieved the numbers myself, and he didn't provide them."
Asked why he signed the statement if it wasn't accurate, Harrison said he laid those reasons out during his court testimony.
Under cross-examination by one of Burrow's defense attorneys, John Lichtenstein, Harrison testified that prosecutors told him he would face criminal prosecution for wire fraud and the prospect of six years in prison unless he signed the statement.
But the news that Harrison had entered an agreement with prosecutors in the Burrow case was big news in the small city of Bedford, where the memorial is located.
People came up to Harrison daily and asked about the case, he said. It also hurt his business for a while. He also resigned his post as a substitute juvenile and domestic relations judge in Bedford to avoid "any appearance of impropriety."
"You could tell the stress he was under when all this came out," said Miller, who emphasized that Harrison does not like to talk about his own difficulties. "It definitely had an effect on him and his family."
Harrison said he doesn't think the fact that Brownlee has asked for charges against Burrow to be dismissed will affect his case, because he was not charged as a co-conspirator in Burrow's case.
"It's a totally different issue," Harrison said.
Harrison's case is still under investigation with the state bar. If a disciplinary committee for the bar should decide that Harrison violated the state bar's code of ethics, he could face anything from censure to the suspension of his law license.
Shelton said he understands that the U.S. Attorney's Office has a duty to uphold the law. But now that the charges against Burrow have been dropped, Shelton said Harrison shouldn't face any legal repercussions, either.
"When does this all end, because we're messing with people's lives, with their families," said Shelton. "Justice and the pursuit of it has to be tempered with some sense of reality."