Scott Peterson's lead attorney, Mark Geragos, faces civil contempt of court charges on suspicion of soliciting and accepting $50,000 from a client whose assets had been frozen by a federal judge in Rhode Island.
The Securities and Exchange Commission wants to have Geragos and George Buehler, another attorney from his Los Angeles-based law firm, held in contempt of court, according to documents filed last week in federal court in Providence.
Geragos denied wrongdoing and predicted victory. He suggested that federal officials, with whom he has tangled in the past, are trying to publicly discredit him and economically disable his client.
"We'll file the appropriate paperwork," Geragos said Wednesday, "and I expect they will withdraw their application."
Geragos is steering Peterson's defense against double-murder charges in Modesto. Authorities say Peterson killed his pregnant wife, Laci, and their unborn son, Conner. Their bodies were recovered along the San Francisco Bay shoreline near where Scott Peterson said he fished alone the day his wife went missing.
Laurie Levenson, a law professor and director of Loyola Law School's Center for Ethical Advocacy, said the developments would have minimal impact on public opinion.
"People are going to use this to see what they already believe," Levenson said. "For some members of the public, they'll say, 'See, he's a slick lawyer. He can't be trusted.' Other people will think they're trying to throw mud on him."
But she noted the stakes are high in a capital murder case.
"You want to have as much credibility as possible when you go before the jury in a death penalty case," Levenson said. "Anything that distracts from your credibility is a serious issue."
The SEC also has asked for civil contempt charges against the Los Angeles accounting firm Laffer & Gottlieb, which authorities contend helped Geragos' firm and received $41,350 from a frozen credit account.
Geragos said the money was not covered by the judge's order.
He confirmed that he directed Buehler to seek payment from their client through credit cards and insisted that it's legal to do so. Banks provided the money in a line of credit; that source is not tied to the client's assets, Geragos said.
The SEC's allegations stem from a civil case brought in April 2002 against eight people, accusing them of swindling $20 million in a fraudulent investment scheme. They had promised investors returns of nearly 300 percent in 12 banking days, according to the SEC.
The group solicited $52 million from investors and returned $32 million, according to the SEC. Officials reported that the remaining $20 million was "misappropriated, transferred or lost."
Geragos' firm represented two of the defendants: Dennis Her-ula, a former securities broker, and his wife, attorney Mary Lee Capalbo.
U.S. District Judge Mary Lisi later found Herula and Capalbo liable of the civil fraud charges and ordered them each to pay more than $19 million.
A federal judge froze Herula's and Capalbo's accounts about a month before Geragos' firm began representing them.
Credit card statements show $50,000 was transferred from three cards in Capalbo's name to the law firm of Geragos & Geragos on Oct. 7 and Oct. 8, 2002, according to SEC documents.
Bradley Brunon, a prominent Los Angeles attorney, said fed- eral regulatory agencies are notorious for trying to render impotent their targets through intimidation and economic starvation.
"They're brutal," Brunon said. "They want to disable their prey from being able to defend herself. (The SEC) takes away their oxygen -- in this case, the ability to hire lawyers and investigators -- and that makes it a very one-sided fight."
Los Angeles legal ethics expert Diane Karpman said the SEC's charges should "not impair (Geragos') ability to continue to represent (Peterson).
"Just like anyone else, (Geragos) is presumed innocent until proven guilty," Karpman said. "Criminal defense lawyers know more about that than anyone else."
Geragos also faces scrutiny for a $1 million check he received in July 2002 from an account controlled by Capalbo in connection with a second fraud case now before a federal court in San Francisco, documents show.
The SEC contends that the $1 million is part of more than $40 million bilked from investors in a separate investment scheme by Herula and associate Claude Lefebvre. Capalbo also is listed as a defendant in the case.
The three squandered at least $4 million in personal spending at Saks Fifth Avenue, a Louis Vuitton store, and luxury hotels in Beverly Hills, Florida and elsewhere, according to the SEC.
An independent trustee overseeing Herula's bankruptcy filed a demand in January for the $1 million to be returned, according to SEC documents.
Geragos said his firm is holding the $1 million and the $50,000 in trust accounts pending a resolution of the disputes.
Geragos said he's not concerned about taking a slide in the court of public opinion. "I'm not worried about that in the least," he said.
The 45-year-old lawyer, who has represented the likes of Gary Condit, Winona Ryder, Robert Downey Jr. and rapper Nate Dogg, embarrassed federal officials in a longshot defense of
Susan McDougal, a Clinton-Whitewater scandal subject.
When she was acquitted, Geragos said of prosecutors, "They don't have the guts to retry it."
Bee staff writer John Coté can be reached at 578-2394 or email@example.com.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at 578-2390 or firstname.lastname@example.org.