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2theadvocate.com: Katrina attorney facing disbarment ‘over an explosion at Shell Oil Co.’s Norco refinery in 1988’

Associated Press
Published: Feb 20, 2007  
   
NEW ORLEANS — A key attorney involved in suing the federal government over damage caused by levee breaches during Hurricane Katrina faces disbarment stemming from a case he handled 16 years ago.

Next week, the Louisiana Supreme Court will hold a hearing on whether to debar Joseph Bruno over his violation of attorney-conduct rules during his handling of a lawsuit over an explosion at Shell Oil Co.’s Norco refinery in 1988.

A sharply divided Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board has recommended disbarring him. The high court has scheduled a Feb. 27 hearing to weigh the matter.

Reached by telephone Monday, Bruno said he could not comment on the disciplinary board’s recommendation or on the pending hearing.

Bruno’s attorney, Dane Ciolino, said his client has an otherwise spotless disciplinary record, and has expressed remorse for his misconduct. He called disbarment excessive and not legally warranted.

“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.

Two infractions associated with the Shell case landed Bruno in trouble:

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.

On Jan. 4, 1993, Bruno reported his misdeeds to Mentz, prompting the full court to order an investigation. In November 1998, the case was heard by U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval.

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.

Chief Disciplinary Attorney Charles Plattsmier said his agency looked into Bruno’s conduct in 2000, and in February 2005 formal charges were filed against Bruno over the Shell case.

In a toughly worded ruling late last year, a five-member majority of the eight-person Disciplinary Board, including the board’s three who are not attorneys, 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 attorney 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.”

Disbarment would cut short a career in which Bruno 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 attorneys to the courthouse after 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.

http://www.2theadvocate.com/news/suburban/5943056.html?showAll=y&c=y

http://en.wikipedia.org.Explosion_at_Shell_Oil_refinery_in_Norco_Louisiana

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