|Monday, March 31, 2003
Bedford reels in wake of lawyer's admission
|Many people associated with the D-Day Memorial are shocked or angered that Louis Harrison plans to testify against Richard Burrow.
By JAY CONLEY
THE ROANOKE TIMES
When Richard Burrow testified in his own defense during his federal fraud trial last December, Louis Harrison's name came up often.
Time and again, Burrow, the former president of the National D-Day Memorial Foundation, said the methods he used to get millions of dollars in bank loans and state grants were legal because the transactions were approved by Harrison, the nonprofit organization's lawyer .
That defense now seems in question.
On March 21, federal prosecutors released a statement in which Harrison claims Burrow acted illegally to acquire money from a California bank and state taxpayer-funded grants.
Harrison's recent admission of guilt in the fund-raising transactions and his agreement to testify against Burrow in a retrial have surprised the foundation's former board members, angered others associated with the project and shocked Bedford's small legal community.
Harrison was the foundation's legal adviser from 1996 to 2000, a role he first performed for free. He is also a well-known Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court attorney who once worked as a part-time Bedford County assistant commonwealth's attorney and has served as a substitute juvenile court judge. He could not be reached for comment last week.
Harrison has entered into a plea agreement with the government in which he won't be charged with wire fraud if he testifies against Burrow. Although Harrison will avoid the possibility of conviction or prison, the state bar has opened an investigation into whether he violated the legal profession's code of conduct.
In December, Burrow was tried on charges of wire, mail, bank and loan application fraud for the way in which he acquired funds to build the $25 million memorial.
At the end of the trial, Senior U.S. District Judge James Turk ruled there was no evidence that Burrow had defrauded the foundation. After a jury deadlocked 7-5 in favor of acquitting Burrow on charges that he defrauded banks and the state of Virginia, Turk declared a mistrial. The government said it expects to reindict Burrow within 90 days.
Much of the government's case centered on the allegation that Burrow fabricated some pledges to use as collateral for bank loans and state grants in 1998 and 2000.
Testifying in his own defense, Burrow said Harrison reviewed the documents for the loans and grants and verified in letters to banks and the state that they were legal transactions.
"We didn't want to do anything that was improper or illegal," Burrow testified, adding that Harrison "reviewed our pledge list" and verified that applications were in proper order.
That testimony was unchallenged. Prosecutors almost called Harrison as a rebuttal witness late in Burrow's trial. But assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Hogeboom said he decided not to put Harrison on the stand because of the chance he would take the Fifth Amendment to avoid implicating himself in the alleged scheme.
In his statement, Harrison wrote that as early as 1998 he told Burrow that using loans to match state grants would be illegal unless the foundation had pledges equal to the amount of the loan. Burrow fudged the pledge lists, Harrison claims, and Harrison admits he didn't do anything to prevent it.
Harrison also denied reviewing the state grant application filed by the foundation in 2000. Burrow has testified Harrison reviewed and approved the application.
"I ignored clear warnings and signs that Burrow was intentionally defrauding the state of Virginia in 2000," Harrison stated.
Burrow's defense attorney, John Lichtenstein, said no matter what Harrison is saying now, that "doesn't change the fact that back then, he rendered an opinion that said it was legal."
Burrow and the foundation's board of directors relied on Harrison's legal opinion that the loans and state grants were handled properly, Lichtenstein said. "I think his [Harrison's] advice to Richard that this was legal was correct. That's the irony of all of this," Lichtenstein added.
Bedford lawyer Carter Garrett said Harrison's legal woes have stunned other lawyers in the small town.
"There is no attorney that practices in the area that enjoys a more outstanding reputation for honesty, integrity and diligence. He's an attorney that demonstrates a real caring for his clients and the legal system."
Harrison has said he deeply regrets his actions. In exchange for testifying against Burrow in a future trial, Harrison will receive a year of probation. He'll avoid a potential conviction for wire fraud, which is punishable by up to five years in jail, and the loss of his law license.
He will also have to pay a $12,500 fine and report his actions to the state bar association.
Barbara Williams, a lawyer with the Virginia State Bar's disciplinary committee, said the committee has begun a preliminary investigation into Harrison's actions. If the committee decides Harrison violated the state bar's code of ethics, the punishment could range from censure to a suspension of his law license.
Like most people associated with building the $25 million memorial in Bedford, Harrison may have let his emotion for seeing the memorial for World War II soldiers succeed cloud his legal judgment, two former D-Day foundation board members said.
Former board members Mike Shelton and Bob Slaughter, who worked with Harrison on D-Day memorial matters, said the lawyer's interest was always in helping the monument succeed.
"He's very community oriented," Shelton said. "His reaction when we came to him for legal advice was, 'Anything I can do to help out, I will.'"
Shelton noted that if federal prosecutors don't ever get a conviction against Burrow - and he doesn't think they should - Harrison could end up with his reputation being ruined for nothing.
"Real lives are being affected, and it's troubling. Across the board, the fact can be accepted that mistakes were made. But is justice served by this?"
Byron Dickson, who designed the memorial, is angry that the federal government would put Burrow through another trial. He thinks the charges should be dropped so the memorial can pull itself out of $3.8 million in debt and carry on with its intended purpose to honor war veterans.
The foundation owes Dickson and Coleman-Adams Construction president Clif Coleman a combined $2.8 million , more than any other creditors who worked on the memorial.
"We've been hurt the most financially," said Dickson, "and we've never said what Richard did was criminal."