Trump Lawyer Gets Bar Complaint. Yeah, Another One.

Trump Lawyer Gets Bar Complaint. Yeah, Another One.
Mar 2023

Trump Lawyer Gets Bar Complaint. Yeah, Another One.
Yesterday, the group Lawyers Defending American Democracy (LDAD) filed a complaint to the DC Board of Professional Responsibility against Stefan Passantino, a lawyer for the Trump Organization and the Trump campaign who fought both Congress and the Manhattan district attorney on the former president's behalf. It's more than a little ironic that the former White House ethics czar is being accused of so very many ethical violations, although whether that irony is delicious or uncomfortable probably depends on where you're sitting.

But this bar complaint is hardly a surprise -- indeed it's the second such complaint inside a month.

Passantino was the original lawyer for January 6 Select Committee witness Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to Mark Meadows. After she dumped Passantino and hired Jody Hunt, the former head of the DOJ's Civil Division, Hutchinson got a whole lot more forthright and gave public testimony that rocked Washington. She also gave private testimony later released by the committee, which described Passantino doing everything in his power to prevent her saying anything which might incriminate Donald Trump, as well as other powerful figures in his orbit, including Eric Herschmann and Mark Meadows.

Hutchinson alleged that Passantino, then with Michael Best & Friedrich LLP, refused to sign an engagement letter or to tell her the source of funding for the representation, much less to disclose any conflicts. He reportedly counseled her that she didn't have to testify to anything "circumstantial," and that she was entitled to say she did not recall an event if even the slightest detail about it had slipped her mind -- after pointedly telling her not to print out her calendar so as to refresh her memory. In one particularly egregious episode, he's reported to have forbidden her from voluntarily testifying a second time because "Trump world will not continue paying your legal bills if you don't have that second subpoena."

Unsurprisingly, Michael Best disappeared Passantino from its website approximately ten seconds after Hutchinson's testimony dropped and the committee announced that it was referring the lawyer to the Justice Department for possible obstruction of its investigation.

But although her testimony forms the basis of this complaint, Hutchinson appears to have nothing to do with it. Instead the coalition of former prosecutors, judges, and state bar officials which make up LDAD seek to draw the DC Board's attention to "numerous serious ethical breaches by Mr. Passantino."

Among them, Mr. Passantino represented conflicting interests where informed consent was not requested, and no reasonable attorney could consider that the conflicting interests could be reconciled; where his advice to Ms. Hutchinson suborned perjury and placed her in jeopardy of criminal sanctions to protect other clients represented by his firm; and where his conduct also likely violated other federal criminal statutes by encouraging her to give false testimony to Congress. These breaches violated both his duties to Ms. Hutchinson and his obligations to the administration of justice.

Noting the imbalance of power between Passantino and his much younger client, as well as the lawyer's former role as an ethics official, the group suggests that disbarment is the appropriate sanction.

Passantino's response, published by the New York Times, skates a fine line between throwing Hutchinson under the bus and avoiding further allegations that he violated professional ethics by revealing his former client's confidences.

On September14, 2022, Ms. Hutchinson gave a transcribed interview in which she says she feared Mr. Passantino would reveal client confidences. At no point, however, does she allege that he actually did so. Moreover, Mr. Passantino specifically denies that he ever revealed attorney confidences or secrets concerning Ms. Hutchinson without Ms. Hutchinson's consent. [Emphasis original.]

And while the response is mostly free of the hyper-caffeinated WITCH HUNT rhetoric which characterizes so much litigation in MAGAworld, it does describe the complaint as a "transparent effort to smear a lawyer who has had a 30-year distinguished career." It also threatens litigation "against its author and anyone who disseminates its contents," which is as good a mode as any of getting a journalist to publish something. (Hey, Stefan, maybe Google "reporter's privilege?")

Passantino further accuses the Select Committee of improperly back channeling to Hutchinson -- who sought the contact herself! -- and says the committee "unjustifiably undermined Ms. Hutchinson's trust in Mr. Passantino and improperly disrupted their attorney-client relationship."

Well, it's a bit much. But congrats to Mr. Passantino on joining the distinguished ranks of Rudy Giuliani and Jeff Clark, both of whom have found themselves in the DC bar's crosshairs.

Ethics Complaint

Elizabeth Dye lives in Baltimore where she writes about law and politics.