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The Times-Picayune (New Orleans): ’88 Shell case may haunt lawyer (1988 explosion at Shell Oil Co.’s Norco refinery)

State panel wants Bruno disbarred
Monday, February 19, 2007
By Susan Finch
Staff writer

Starting with a federal class action lawsuit over the 1988 explosion at Shell Oil Co.’s Norco refinery, New Orleans lawyer Joe Bruno has specialized in representing mass-disaster victims, these days almost exclusively people who lost their homes to flooding after Hurricane Katrina.

Now, in an unexpected threat to one of the pillars of the local plaintiffs’ bar, Bruno suddenly finds himself facing a fight to salvage his own career.

He will be in the Louisiana Supreme Court next week trying to head off action that could result in his disbarment. Under review: his violation of lawyer-conduct rules 16 years ago in the Shell case — violations he has long since admitted and been punished for, with a one- year suspension from practicing law in federal court.

In a hearing set for Feb. 27, the state’s high court will weigh the recommendation of a sharply divided Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board that disbarment is the appropriate penalty for conduct that Bruno himself agrees put his case against Shell in jeopardy.

Bruno attorney Dane Ciolino, noting his client’s otherwise spotless disciplinary record, remorse for his misconduct and excellent reputation, called disbarment excessive and not legally warranted in this case.

“It’s like going to traffic court for a violation and getting the death penalty,” said Ciolino, who has asked the Supreme Court to give Bruno a deferred one-year suspension.

Prominent cases

Disbarment of Bruno would cut short a career in which he figured prominently over the last 13 years in a string of headline-making cases that secured more than $600 million in settlements.

The list includes lawsuits over the 1987 railroad tank car explosion in Gentilly and the release of toxic fumes in 1995 at Gaylord Chemical Co.’s Bogalusa plant, as well as the case that yielded a jury’s order in 2004 for major tobacco firms to fork over hundreds of millions of dollars to help Louisiana smokers kick the habit.

One of the first lawyers to the courthouse after Hurricane Katrina, Bruno is part of a “levee litigation” group involved in a flurry of lawsuits that seek compensation from insurance companies and the Army Corps of Engineers for New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish residents flooded out of their homes when levees broke in the storm’s wake.

Two infractions associated with the Shell case landed Bruno in hot water when he was the greenest member of the plaintiffs’ legal committee:

— Paying a Shell employee $5,000 in 1991 for inside information about what Bruno believed to be misconduct by Shell in preparing its witnesses for depositions.

— Not speaking up at an October 1992 hearing when another member of the plaintiffs’ legal team told Judge Henry Mentz that the plaintiffs’ committee had not paid the Shell employee and continuing to keep mum when another lawyer on the committee reiterated that claim in a post-hearing brief.

Just over two months later — on Jan. 4, 1993 — Bruno reported his misdeeds to Mentz, prompting the full court to order an investigation.

But it wasn’t until November 1998 that the case was heard by Judge Stanwood Duval, who explained that the matter had “languished in the U.S. attorney’s office for several years.”

Duval concluded that Bruno’s violations, though “potentially injurious,” caused no harm because the case did not go to trial. What Bruno did, Duval said, was grounded not in malice but in his genuine belief that paying the Shell insider for information “would compensate for Shell’s refusal to cooperate.”

Duval recommended Bruno get a six-month suspension, but the full court moved in 1999 to sideline Bruno from federal practice for a year, and his federal disciplinary record was placed under seal.

Puzzling notification

The matter might have ended there except for this: The state Supreme Court’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel was puzzled in June 2000 when a letter from the U.S. district court clerk’s office arrived with news that Bruno had been reinstated to the federal court law practice.

Until then, Chief Disciplinary Attorney Charles Plattsmier said, his agency had no inkling of Bruno’s federal court troubles. Plattsmier said his office has no record of receiving the Bruno suspension notice that U.S. District Court Clerk Loretta Whyte reported she sent early in 1999.

But after Bruno’s federal court suspension came to its attention, the disciplinary office set out to learn what he had done to merit punishment. Gathering that information took a while because it involved getting the court to unseal Bruno’s disciplinary case.

Finally, in February 2005, a Plattsmier lieutenant filed formal charges against Bruno over his misconduct in the Shell case.

Three months later, a Disciplinary Board hearing committee suggested that because Bruno is an experienced lawyer whose conduct could have adversely affected the Shell case, he should be suspended for a year.

The committee prescribed deferring all but three months of that term in light of Bruno’s generally clean record, his good reputation and the fact that the disciplinary case had hung fire for so long.

‘Harm to the profession’

But in a toughly worded ruling late last year, a five-member majority of the Disciplinary Board, including the board’s three nonlawyers, said the Supreme Court should remove Bruno from law practice altogether.

“The respondent caused actual harm to the legal system and to the profession,” the majority said in its decision, written by Houma lawyer Christopher Riviere.

“Paying a witness and failing to correct factual misstatements on the record undermine the credibility of the judicial process,” they said. “When the lawyer’s integrity is the source of the misconduct, the integrity of the profession as a whole is undermined.”

The three dissenting members, one of them New Orleans lawyer Bill Aaron, argued that Bruno deserves far less draconian treatment for a number of reasons, one being that the misconduct happened so long ago.

“The burden of living with the fear of having one’s livelihood removed is a punishment unto itself,” the dissenters said, noting that the state Supreme Court in other cases had “recognized these drawn-out affairs as a hardship to be considered.”

Concluding that they found no evidence that Bruno caused actual injury, the dissenters said they agreed with the hearing committee that what Bruno did was an isolated occurrence that was not prompted by a selfish motive and that merits only a three-month suspension.

. . . . . . .

Susan Finch can be reached at [email protected] or (504) 826-3340.

© 2007 The Times-Picayune. All rights reserved.

Related New York Times news report at time of explosion in May 1988

New York Times: Archive News Report from 7 May 1988 (explosion at Norco Shell Oil refinery)

royaldutchshellplc.com and its sister websites royaldutchshellgroup.com, shellenergy.website, shellnazihistory.com, royaldutchshell.website, johndonovan.website, shellnews.net and shell2004.com are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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