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Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland v. Blair

Court of Appeals of Maryland

July 13, 2018

ATTORNEY GRIEVANCE COMMISSION OF MARYLAND
v.
WALTER LLOYD BLAIR

          Argued: May 31, 2018

          Greene Adkins Watts Getty Harrell, Jr. Glenn T. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned) Battaglia, Lynne A. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned) Raker, Irma S. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned)

          OPINION

          Watts, J.

         This attorney discipline proceeding involves a lawyer who, in the words of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, "concocted and executed a scheme to launder drug proceeds that he obtained from a client." United States v. Blair, 661 F.3d 755, 759 (4th Cir. 2011) (per curiam), cert. denied, 567 U.S. 905 (2012). In its opinion disposing of the first appeal in the lawyer's criminal case, the Fourth Circuit set forth the facts underlying the lawyer's convictions for money laundering, witness tampering, making a false statement, and willful failure to file a federal income tax return-all of which the Fourth Circuit affirmed. See Blair, 661 F.3d at 759.

         According to the Fourth Circuit, Elizabeth Nicely Simpson, a prospective client, told Walter Lloyd Blair, Respondent, a member of the Bar of Maryland, that she possessed a safe that contained drug money belonging to Anthony Rankine, who had operated a large marijuana distribution ring near Richmond, Virginia. See id. at 759-60. Among other things, Blair invented a lie regarding drug money being from a legitimate source, and told Simpson to tell the lie if anyone inquired about the drug money. See id. at 760-61. Without being asked to do so, Blair caused a corporation to be created through which Simpson could buy and sell real estate with the drug money. See id. at 761.

         After agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation ("the FBI") contacted Simpson to interview her, Blair told Simpson not to tell the FBI agents about the drug money, and to instead talk to the agents only about a car that Simpson had purchased for Rankine. See id. at 762. Blair told Simpson that, if the money came up, she should use the lie that he had made up regarding the money being from a legitimate source. See id.

         In a federal court in Virginia, Blair applied for admission pro hac vice to represent one of Rankine's associates as co-counsel. See id. at 763. In his pro hac vice application, Blair misrepresented that he had never been subject to disciplinary action by a bar association. See id. Contrary to Blair's application, the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia had previously suspended him from the practice of law in West Virginia based on witness tampering. See id. at 763, 767.

         During an investigation of the marijuana distribution ring and money laundering scheme, FBI agents discovered that Blair had failed to file federal income tax returns for two years, including the year in which he had taken some of the money from the safe for himself. See id. at 768, 761.

         In the United States District Court for the District of Maryland ("the District Court"), the United States Attorney's Office for the District of Maryland filed an indictment against Blair, charging him with: nine counts of money laundering; one count each of witness tampering, obstruction of justice, and making a false statement; and two counts of willful failure to file federal income tax returns. A jury found Blair guilty of all fourteen charges. Blair's convictions came to Bar Counsel's attention.

         On May 3, 2010, on behalf of the Attorney Grievance Commission, Petitioner, Bar Counsel filed in this Court a "Petition for Disciplinary or Remedial Action" against Blair, initiating Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Walter Lloyd Blair, Misc. Docket AG No. 83, Sept. Term, 2009. In the Petition, Bar Counsel charged Blair with violating Maryland Lawyers' Rules of Professional Conduct ("MLRPC")[1] 8.4(b) (Criminal Act), 8.4(c) (Dishonesty, Fraud, Deceit, or Misrepresentation), and 8.4(d) (Conduct That Is Prejudicial to the Administration of Justice).

         On May 3, 2010, this Court issued a Show Cause Order, noting that Blair's convictions were for "serious crimes" as defined in former Maryland Rule 16-701(k), [2] and directing Blair to show cause why he should not be suspended immediately from the practice of law in Maryland until further order of the Court. On June 8, 2010, Blair filed a response to the Show Cause Order in which he requested that this Court refrain from suspending him from the practice of law until the Fourth Circuit, and possibly the Supreme Court, disposed of the direct appeal in his criminal case.

         On July 21, 2010, this Court issued an Order suspending Blair immediately from the practice of law in Maryland with the invitation to request reconsideration if the Fourth Circuit ruled in his favor. See Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Blair, 415 Md. 119, 120, 999 A.2d 182, 182 (2010). In addition to the action taken by this Court, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals summarily disbarred Blair based on his conviction for witness tampering. See In re Blair, 40 A.3d 883, 884 (D.C. 2012) (per curiam). On September 21, 2011, the Fourth Circuit affirmed thirteen of Blair's convictions, but reversed the conviction for obstruction of justice due to insufficient evidence, and remanded the case for resentencing. See Blair, 661 F.3d at 759, 775.

         On remand, the District Court resentenced Blair to an aggregate sentence of ninety-seven months of imprisonment, three years of supervised release, and a $100, 000 fine. On or about July 11, 2017, Blair was released from federal custody. On December 1, 2017, Blair filed with this Court a Petition for Reinstatement, in which, for the first time, he informed this Court and Bar Counsel of the opinion in which the Fourth Circuit disposed of the first appeal in his criminal case by affirming thirteen of his convictions.

         On January 30, 2018, Bar Counsel filed a Response in Opposition to the Petition for Reinstatement, contending that the Petition for Reinstatement was not ripe because there had not yet been a final disposition in this attorney discipline proceeding. On the same date, Bar Counsel filed a Motion for Final Disposition or, in the Alternative, Further Proceedings in this attorney discipline proceeding. Bar Counsel recommended that we disbar Blair based on the serious crimes of which he was convicted. On February 1, 2018, Blair filed a Reply to the Motion for Final Disposition or, in the Alternative, Further Proceedings, requesting that we deny Bar Counsel's request for disbarment and, in the alternative, that this Court order "further proceedings . . . in such form as this Court deems appropriate[.]"

         On April 25, 2018, Bar Counsel filed a Recommendation for Sanction, again recommending that we disbar Blair and deny the Petition for Reinstatement. On May 7, 2018, Blair filed a Renewed Petition for Reinstatement and Response to the Attorney Grievance Commission's Recommendation for Sanction, again requesting that we reinstate him to the practice of law in Maryland.

         On May 31, 2018, we heard oral argument. For the below reasons, we disbar Blair.

         BACKGROUND

         On October 3, 1996, this Court admitted Blair to the Bar of Maryland.

         Events That Gave Rise to Blair's Convictions

         In Blair, 661 F.3d 755-the opinion in which the Fourth Circuit handled the first appeal in Blair's criminal case-the Fourth Circuit described the events that gave rise to his convictions. Specifically, according to the Fourth Circuit, in 2003, a man named Rankine operated a large marijuana distribution ring near Richmond. See id. at 759. In August 2003, Simpson bought a Cadillac for Rankine. See id. Rankine provided Simpson with $18, 000 for the down payment, and promised to reimburse her for the remainder of the Cadillac's cost. See id. Despite the Cadillac being titled in Simpson's name, Rankine, not Simpson, used the Cadillac. See id. Shortly after Simpson bought the Cadillac, her sister, Janet, asked her to store at her house a safe that belonged to Rankine. See id. Although Simpson knew that Rankine was a marijuana distributor, she agreed to store the safe at her house. See id. Rankine brought his safe to Simpson's house, but did not provide her with a key or combination number for the safe. See id.

         In Fall 2003, Tasha Robinson, Rankine's girlfriend, was found dead in his home in Richmond. See id. Initially, the whereabouts of Rankine, as well as Robinson's son, were unknown. See id. Within weeks, Rankine and Robinson's son were also found dead. See id. Around this time, Simpson learned that Rankine's safe contained drug money, and believed that she may have been in danger. See id. Simpson began to receive threats about the drug money in Rankine's safe, and a coworker advised Simpson to contact a criminal defense lawyer. See id. at 760. On November 4, 2003, Simpson telephoned Blair and told him that she possessed a safe with drug money that belonged to Rankine, that Robinson had been murdered, and that Rankine was missing. See id. Blair warned Simpson that the telephonic conversation might not be secure, told her not to say anything else, and requested that she come to his office later that day. See id.

         Simpson and Michael Henry, her coworker, went to Blair's office. See id. Simpson again told Blair that she possessed a safe with drug money that belonged to Rankine. See id. Simpson also told Blair that she was worried about being tied to the Cadillac, and was frightened because of the violence that had been linked to Rankine. See id. Simpson showed Blair online media articles that linked Robinson's murder and Rankine's disappearance. See id. Simpson told Blair that she had gotten a telephone call from someone who said that Dashawn Saunders, a member of the marijuana distribution ring, was incarcerated in Richmond and needed the drug money to pay for a lawyer. See id. at 759-60. Blair advised Simpson and Henry to open Rankine's safe "by any means necessary," and bring its contents to him. Id. at 760.

         Simpson and Henry opened Rankine's safe, which contained drug money in the form of rubber-banded stacks of cash. See id. Simpson and Henry put the drug money into a duffel bag without counting it. See id. Simpson and Henry gave the duffel bag to Blair, who asked Simpson to leave the room while he and Henry counted the drug money. See id. Henry watched Blair count approximately $170, 000. See id. After Simpson reentered the room, Blair falsely told her that the duffel bag had contained $70, 000. See id.

         Blair told Simpson and Henry that, if anyone asked, they should say that the drug money was "partner money." Id. "Partner money" is a term that arises out of a practice within the Jamaican culture, and Simpson and Henry-who, like Blair, were originally from Jamaica-understood the term when Blair used it. See id. That practice, described as follows, allows individuals of modest means to obtain a substantial amount of funds that they would not be able to borrow from a lending institution. See id. First, a group of individuals, or "partners," regularly contribute a given amount of money-i.e., "partner money"-to a pool. See id. at 760-61. One person, the "banker," holds onto the pool. See id. at 761. At some point, the banker provides the pool to one of the partners. See id. After the partners make enough additional contributions to replenish the pool, the banker provides it to another partner. See id. This process repeats until the banker has provided the pool to every partner at some point. See id.

         In addition to telling Simpson and Henry to say that the drug money from Rankine's safe was "partner money," Blair told Simpson to say that Robinson, Rankine's deceased girlfriend, was the banker. See id. Blair explained that naming Robinson as the banker would be effective because she was deceased, so nobody would know the truth. See id.

         Even though Simpson had not asked Blair to do so, he said that he intended to create a corporation through which she could use some of the drug money to buy real estate. See id. A lawyer in Blair's firm prepared "Articles of Incorporation" for "Jay Paul Property Management," listing Simpson and Henry as officers. See id. Blair gave Simpson a "Retainer and Fee Agreement," on which he told her to write: (1) "This is a retainer to establish my corporation [for] the purpose of buying and selling real estate in the DC metro area."; (2) "I also authorize and retain Blair & Lee[3] to recover my vehicle or [t]ake appropriate action to protect my interest"; and (3) "Initial deposit for new bank account $7, 000.00." See Blair, 661 F.3d at 761 (some alterations in original).

         Blair told Simpson and Henry to set aside some of the drug money to pay the legal fees of Saunders and Richard Bernard, associates of Rankine who had been charged in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia with conspiracy to distribute drugs. See id. at 761, 763 & n.2.

         Blair took Simpson and Henry to meet Vassel Clarke, a mortgage broker, and asked him to find and buy real estate on Simpson's behalf. See id. Blair-who brought to the meeting the duffel bag with approximately $170, 000 in drug money-falsely told Clarke that the duffel bag contained $100, 000 in "partner money." See id. Blair asked Clarke to take all of the "partner money" to invest on Simpson's behalf. See id. Clarke refused, and instead took only $9, 000. See id. Blair retained the remaining drug money. See id.

         To secure representation for Saunders and Bernard, Blair contacted David Boone and James Yoffy, lawyers in Virginia. See id. Boone agreed to represent Saunders, with Blair as Boone's co-counsel, and Yoffy agreed to represent Bernard. See id. Blair took $30, 000 of the drug money-$10, 000 for himself, $10, 000 to buy a SunTrust Bank cashier's check for Boone, and $10, 000 to buy a SunTrust Bank cashier's check for Yoffy. See id.

         On November 7, 2003, Simpson and Clarke went to a branch of BB&T Bank, where Simpson opened a personal checking account and deposited the $9, 000 in drug money that Blair had given Clarke the previous day. See id. Afterward, Simpson and Blair went to a branch of SunTrust Bank, where they attempted to open a business account for Jay Paul Property Management. See id. Simpson and Blair were unable to open such an account because Jay Paul Property Management lacked a tax identification number. See id. Instead, Blair opened a business account under the name "Blair & Associates, LLC, for Jay Paul Property Management." Id. at 761-62. Contrary to the Retainer and Fee Agreement- which indicated that $7, 000 would be deposited into Jay Paul Property Management's business account-Blair deposited $6, 000 into the account, and kept $1, 000 as a fee for creating Jay Paul Property Management. See id. at 762.

         A few days later, Blair gave Clarke an additional $31, 000 of the drug money to buy real estate on Simpson's behalf. See id. at 762. Blair warned Clarke not to deposit all of the money at once. See id. As such, Clarke made multiple deposits into Simpson's personal checking account at BB&T Bank. See id.

         Clarke found two pieces of real estate for Simpson to buy. See id. First, Simpson bought a house in Washington, D.C. See id. To pay the deposit, Simpson wrote a $2, 000 check on her personal checking account at BB&T Bank. See id. To pay the amount that was due at closing, Simpson used her personal checking account at BB&T Bank to buy a $12, 432 bank check. See id. Next, Simpson bought a tract of land in Maryland. See id. To pay the deposit, Simpson wrote a $5, 000 check on her personal checking account at BB&T Bank. See id.

         On November 12, 2003, FBI agents informed Simpson that they wanted to interview her about the Cadillac, which had been linked to drug trafficking in Richmond. See id. Simpson refused to answer any questions, and referred the FBI agents to Blair. See id. Simpson went to Blair's office and asked how she should handle questions by the FBI agents. See id. Blair told Simpson not to tell the FBI agents about the drug money, and to speak to the agents only about the Cadillac. See id. Blair told Simpson that, if the drug money came up, she should falsely state that drug money was "partner money." See id. During the meeting, Blair tape-recorded Simpson as she rehearsed what she would say to the FBI agents. See id. On November 13, 2003, Blair gave Simpson a letter and told her to memorize it. See id. Blair's letter described the lie that he had made up regarding the drug money being "partner money." See id.

         On November 17, 2003, ostensibly as Boone's co-counsel, Blair filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia an application for admission pro hac vice so that he could represent Saunders. See id. at 763. In his application, Blair misrepresented that he had never been reprimanded by a court or subject to disciplinary action by a bar association. See id. Contrary to Blair's application, in 1984, the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia suspended Blair from the practice of law in West Virginia for six months based on witness tampering. See id. at 767. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted Blair's application. See id. at 763. Blair and Boone served as Saunders's counsel of record until July 2004, when Saunders was sentenced after pleading guilty. See id.

         During an investigation of the marijuana distribution ring and Blair's money laundering, FBI agents discovered that Blair had failed to file federal income tax returns for 2002 and 2003. See id. at 768.

         Blair's Criminal Case

         Blair attached to the Petition for Reinstatement the docket entries and an appendix to a petition for a writ of certiorari in his criminal case, which includes a Superseding Indictment filed in his case. In the Superseding Indictment, the Grand Jury for the District of Maryland indicted Blair with fourteen crimes, which we identify in the below table:

Count:

Charge:

Underlying Event:

1.

Money Laundering under 18 U.S.C. § 1956(a)(1)(B)(i)

On or about November 6, 2003, Simpson gave Blair more than $70, 000.

2.

Same

On or about November 6, 2003, Blair gave Clarke $9, 000.

3.

Same

On or about November 7, 2003, Blair deposited $6, 000 into an account at SunTrust Bank.

4.

Same

On or about November 11, 2003, Blair gave Clarke $31, 000.

5.

Same

On or about November 22, 2003, Simpson gave a $2, 000 check on an account at BB&T Bank to the seller of a piece of real estate in Washington, D.C.

6.

Same

On or about November 28, 2003, Simpson gave a $5, 000 check on an account at BB&T Bank to the seller of a piece of real estate in Maryland.

7.

Same

On or about December 17, 2003, Blair bought from SunTrust Bank a $6, 000 bank check that was payable to another lawyer.

8.

Same

On or about January 8, 2004, Simpson bought from BB&T Bank a $12, 432.31 bank check.

9.

Money Laundering under 18 U.S.C. § 1957(a)

On or about November 12, 2003, Blair bought from SunTrust Bank two bank checks that totaled $20, 000.

10.

Witness Tampering under 18 U.S.C. § 1512

On or about November 12, 2003, Blair told Simpson not to tell the FBI agents about the drug money, and that, if the drug money came up, she should provide false information.

11.

Obstruction of Justice under 18 U.S.C. § 1503

On or about November 11, 2003, Blair misrepresented to the United States District Court for the Eastern District Virginia that he had never been reprimanded by a court, and that there had not been an action in any court regarding his conduct or fitness as a member of a bar.

12.

Making a False Statement under 18 U.S.C. § 1001(a)(2)

On or about July 6, 2005, during an interview with agents of the Internal Revenue Service (“the IRS”), Blair provided false information about the nature, source, and amount of the drug money.

13.

Willful Failure to File Federal Income Tax Return under 26 U.S.C. § 7203

Blair failed to file a federal income tax return for 2002.

14.

Same

Blair failed to file a federal income tax return for 2003.

         On December 15, 2009, a jury found Blair guilty of all fourteen charges. On April 23, 2010, the District Court sentenced Blair. Blair filed a notice of appeal.

         On September 21, 2011, the Fourth Circuit issued a per curiam opinion in which it reversed Blair's conviction for obstruction of justice due to insufficient evidence, but affirmed his thirteen other convictions, and remanded for resentencing. See Blair, 661 F.3d at 775. The three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit was unanimous on every issue, except as to whether the District Court erred in denying a motion to dismiss Count 9 (Money Laundering under 18 U.S.C. § 1957(a)). See id. at 770. Chief Judge William B. Traxler, Jr., who dissented with respect to Blair's conviction for money laundering under 18 U.S.C. § 1957(a), wrote: "Blair's conduct was unquestionably reprehensible, and it was particularly offensive to members of the legal profession." Id. at 776 (Traxler, C.J., dissenting). Blair petitioned for a writ of certiorari. On June 11, 2012, the Supreme Court denied the petition. See Blair, 567 U.S. 905.

         On March 20, 2012, at a resentencing proceeding, the District Court sentenced Blair to ninety-seven months of imprisonment and a $100, 000 fine as to Count 1, ninety-seven concurrent months of imprisonment as to each of Counts 2 through 10, sixty concurrent months of imprisonment as to Count 12, and twelve concurrent months of imprisonment as to each of Counts 13 and 14, followed by three years of supervised ...


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