A Legalpalooza Only Dickens Could Love

Opinions 2008/03/01 14:07   Bookmark and Share

You can't go home again. After two federal criminal trials charging him with looting Westar Energy, David Wittig has become all too familiar with that aphorism in his six-year legal odyssey.

But if you do go home again, it seems, you should first reacquaint yourself with local legal rates, which are likely to be far less than the high prices charged on the East Coast.

That seems to be the message of he most recent legal sideshow in the Westar case, sometimes dubbed the Enron of Kansas.

First, some background: In 2002, Federal prosecutors accused Wittig and another Westar executive, Douglas Lake, of wire fraud, conspiracy, money laundering, and circumventing of internal controls in the process of "looting" Westar, an electrical utility in Topeka, Kansas.

Their first trial, in 2004, ended in a hung jury. In September 2005, the jury at their second trial convicted the men of multiple counts, but an appeals court overturned the verdicts in 2007. It also threw out many charges, saying prosecutors had failed to prove the men violated any federal regulations. Their third trial is scheduled to start on September 9.

Who has been paying Wittig's and Lake's multimillion-dollar legal bills while they have stymied their former employer all these years? Why, Westar itself. Under the company's bylaws, Wittig and Lake, as former officers, are entitled to payment of reasonable legal defense costs, at least until they are convicted of criminal wrongdoing.

Not surprisingly, Westar is getting tired of writing the checks. And so it has challenged how much it is on the hook to pay. Specifically, does "reasonable" defense costs mean reasonable for Kansas City, where Westar is based? Or reasonable for New York and Washington, D.C., where Wittig and Lake found lawyers they like?

Since 2005, Westar has fought payment of lawyers for both Wittig and Lake, suing them in separate lawsuits, claiming outrage over the high prices charged by lawyers from the East Coast — and, so far, failing miserably in each of these cases.

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FSUPD, local law firm host Bike-A-Thon

Press Release 2008/03/01 14:05   Bookmark and Share

The Florida State University Police Department and the law firm of Brooks, LeBoeuf, Bennett, Foster & Gwartney is hosting the free "Stop DUI in 24 Hours Bike-A-Thon" from noon today to noon Sunday.

FSU PD Maj. Jim Russell invites FSU students and staff and concerned community members to grab their bikes and helmets and meet at FSU's Westcott Plaza between 10:30 a.m. and noon today to participate. According to event founder Major Jim Russell, this is the second year, the FSUPD is leading the bike-a-thon to raise awareness concerning impaired driving with a goal of reducing the number of DUI related offenses and fatalities.

A public send-off ceremony will be held at noon Saturday at Westcott Plaza; also from noon until 5 p.m. a free "safety village" will be staged on the Plaza by the fountain with entertainment and a chance to make donations of $10 per lap to individual or teams hoping to win with the most laps. Dean LeBoeuf, one of sponsoring attorneys, stressed this is not a race but a safe, escorted three-mile circuit through campus that anyone may enjoy. Cyclists may ride as much or as little as they choose during the 24-hour time period. Throughout the ride, events will be held to raise awareness concerning impaired driving, traffic safety, and drug and alcohol abuse.

The first responder and law enforcement cyclists will stop at FSU residence halls between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. to offer DUI awareness presentations. The ride will conclude with a public awards ceremony on the steps of the Westcott Building on Sunday at 1 p.m. Cyclists are asked to bring a helmet and bike with lights if they plan to ride in the dark. All riders will be provided with a free set of head and tail lights, however they must bring a set of batteries. Registration forms are available on-site or may be downloaded at the FSUPD website at www.police.fsu.edu, click on the FSUPD Stop DUI in 24 Hours logo in the right hand column. Cyclists under 18 must have a signed release from a parent or guardian or they will not be permitted to ride.

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Williamsburg estate law firm is renamed

Press Release 2008/03/01 14:00   Bookmark and Share
A decade-old Williamsburg estate law firm is changing its name and Web site, effective today. Williamsburg Legal Associates, founded by John Sadler and the late Joseph Abdelmour, will now be known as Williamsburg Estate Planning.

The new site is www.williamsburgestateplanning.com.

Sadler also announced that free quarterly educational planning workshops would continue, and the firm is establishing a speaker's bureau offering education on estate-planning topics.

Columbia Gas is reducing the cost of gas for its customers in March about 7 percent, dropping the average customer bill from $161.77 to $150.66. Natural gas costs in Virginia are passed on with no markup.

The utility gets a regulated profit margin on the cost of delivering gas to homes. Columbia said the price decrease was spurred by a plentiful supply of natural gas industrywide and a winter in Virginia that had been 10 percent warmer than average.

The new price applies to March, April and May.

Natural gas use is measured per hundred cubic feet, or Ccf. The average customer uses about 100 Ccf in March, then drops off to 35 Ccf in May.

The $150.66 estimate of the average bill will deviate higher or lower, depending on whether people use more or less than 100 Ccf of gas.

The peanut industry is poised for an uptick in 2008, in light of higher contracts.

The industry fell on hard times after the 2002 Farm Bill ended a federal peanut program that guaranteed high prices to some farmers.

But this year, contract prices are the highest since 2002, Dell Cotton, executive director of the Virginia Peanut Growers Association, told the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation.

Contract prices might be higher because peanut buyers are competing for acreage with wheat and soybeans, which are selling at 10-year highs.

Prices for the jumbo-sized Virginia peanut have been reported in the range of $555 a ton, compared with last year's $470, the Farm Bureau said.

The state's peanut acreage bottomed out in 2006, when only 16,000 acres were planted. In its heyday, peanuts were harvested from 164,000 acres in 1948. Last year, farmers planted 22,000 acres.

Now is too early to tell how many acres will be planted this year.
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FCC General Counsel Feder Leaves for Law Firm

Attorney News 2008/03/01 13:49   Bookmark and Share

Samuel Feder, the general counsel of the Federal Communications Commission, is leaving his post of about three years to become a partner at law firm Jenner & Block. Feder, who has worked closely with Chairman Kevin Martin since coming to the FCC in 2001, will be replaced by Matthew Berry, according to release by the agency. Feder worked with Martin on radio spectrum and international policy issues.

"Sam provided exceptional legal advice on every matter we faced and also played a crucial role in policy development. I have worked with Sam since the day I became a Commissioner in 2001, and I will greatly miss his excellent judgment and wise counsel," Martin said in a release.

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ANNOUNCEMENT - Bennett Jones LLP

Press Release 2008/03/01 12:33   Bookmark and Share

Bennett Jones LLP is pleased to announce that John Cordeau, Q.C., has been appointed Vice-Chair of the firm.

John also serves as the firm's Lead Director. He has extensive litigation experience representing clients on matters including commercial disputes, administrative law, professional regulation, insurance matters, insolvency and enforcement actions.

John is a member of the board of directors of Synenco Energy Inc., a foundation member and governor of St. Mary's University College, and a member of the Leaders of the Way, United Way of Calgary and Area.

With over 340 lawyers based in Calgary, Toronto and Edmonton, Bennett Jones LLP is an internationally recognized Canadian law firm founded and focused on principles of professional excellence, integrity, respect and independent thought. Our firm's leadership position is reflected in the law we practice, the groundbreaking work we do, the client relationships we have, and the quality of our people.

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Court Looks At Internet Limits

Court News 2008/03/01 12:24   Bookmark and Share

The dispute over a Burlington, Conn., teenager's Internet journal gave rise on Tuesday to a wide-ranging and contentious federal court hearing about free speech, whether schools can regulate students' language off campus and how the Internet blurs the boundaries of a school campus.

Avery Doninger, the 17-year-old high school senior at the center of the case, sat in the front row as a three-judge panel of the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals lobbed questions at the attorneys. Lawyers for both sides described the hearing as uncharacteristically lengthy and suggested that the duration underscored the case's position in new legal territory.

In simplest terms, the hearing Tuesday addressed whether Doninger should be allowed to serve as senior class secretary at Lewis S. Mills High School and, as a class officer, speak at her graduation.

The principal had barred Doninger from serving on the student council because of derogatory comments she made about school officials in an Internet blog. A lower court judge denied an injunction that would have allowed her back on the council.

U.S. District Court Judge Mark Kravitz ruled in August that Doninger had not shown a "substantial likelihood" that she would succeed in challenging the constitutional validity of her principal's decision.

The appeals court did not rule Tuesday, but the judges raised questions ranging from the specifics of the high school's student council election procedures to how the Internet changes students' rights to free speech.

The attorneys staked out opposite positions on the free-speech question.

Asked whether schools should be allowed to regulate anything students write on the Internet, Doninger's attorney, Jon L. Schoenhorn, argued that the Internet should not give schools more cause to regulate off-campus speech. "It's just a bigger soapbox," he said.

The school officials' attorney, Thomas R. Gerarde, argued that the Internet has fundamentally changed students' ability to communicate, allowing them to reach hundreds of people at a time. If a student leader makes offensive comments about the school on the Internet, the school should have the right to act, said Gerarde, who represents Mills Principal Karissa Niehoff and former Region 10 Superintendent Paula Schwartz. "We shouldn't be required to just swallow it," he said.

Doninger's case began with a dispute about the school's annual Jamfest, a battle-of-the-bands-type program that Doninger had helped coordinate. Frustrated that Jamfest was not going ahead as scheduled, Doninger wrote on her livejournal.com weblog that "Jamfest is canceled due to the douchbags [sic] in central office." She also encouraged others to write or call Schwartz "to piss her off more," and included an e-mail her mother wrote as an example.

In fact, Jamfest wasn't canceled and was rescheduled. After administrators found the blog entry, about two weeks after Doninger wrote it, Niehoff told Doninger to apologize to Schwartz, show her mother the blog entry and remove herself from seeking re-election as class secretary.

Doninger agreed to the first two, but refused to withdraw her candidacy. Administrators did not allow her to run, though enough students wrote her name on the ballot that she won. She was not allowed to serve.

In his August ruling, Kravitz suggested that while Doninger wrote her blog entry off school grounds, she could be punished for it because the blog addressed school issues and was likely to be read by other students.

The issue of on-campus and off-campus speech was a key theme Tuesday as attorneys and judges grappled with how the existing legal framework for school-speech issues applies to the Internet.

Student-speech issues have long been governed by a 1969 U.S. Supreme Court case. It established that disruptive conduct by students is not constitutionally protected, but that schools can prohibit expression only if they can show that not doing so would interfere with schoolwork or discipline.

A 1986 Supreme Court ruling added another cause for schools to regulate speech, allowing them to prohibit "vulgar and lewd" speech if it would undermine the school's basic educational mission.

But those cases involved speech that took place on school grounds or during a school activity.

Much of the discussion Tuesday involved another 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals case, Wisniewski v. Board of Education of the Weedsport Central School District in New York. A student was suspended after he created an instant-messaging icon, visible to his friends, that suggested his English teacher should be shot. The court upheld the suspension last year, saying it was reasonable to expect that the icon would come to the attention of school authorities and could create a risk of substantial disruption to the school environment.

Gerarde, the school officials' attorney, argued that the Wisniewski case extended the boundaries of school discretion to the Internet and allowed Lewis Mills to sanction Doninger's blog, which he said was as potentially disruptive as the Wisniewski case.

Doninger's post caused administrators to receive numerous telephone calls and e-mails — including offensive ones, according to court records — and prompted students to consider staging a sit-in. That forced Schwartz to disrupt a presentation she had been scheduled to make to a visiting Chinese delegation.

Gerarde said speech off campus can affect the school. But Judge Sonia Sotomayor challenged his argument, noting that "Pedagogical rights can't supersede the rights of students off campus to have First Amendment rights."

Schoenhorn, Doninger's attorney, offered a different interpretation of the Wisniewski case. The suspension was allowed in that case not because the Internet could be considered on-campus, but because the student's behavior clearly created a risk of disruption, something the school would be able to regulate under the 1969 Supreme Court ruling. In Doninger's case, he said, there was no similar risk of disruption, particularly by the time administrators found the blog post.

The judges asked several questions about the implications of each attorney's views on schools' regulating Internet speech.

"If students are free to say offensive things about administrators on their home computers, chaos will rule," Judge Loretta Preska told Schoenhorn.

They already say offensive things about their teachers, Schoenhorn replied, noting that whole websites are devoted to rating teachers.

Sotomayor asked Gerarde how far school regulation of Internet speech could go. What if a student made false and offensive posts about the mayor and then wanted to run for student council, he asked. Would a principal be able to bar the student from running because she had not shown good citizenship?

Gerarde said it would depend on how likely it was that the school administration would see the blog. But Sotomayor said that would suggest the consequences would be related to how active a student was.

Gerarde posed another situation: What if a class president drove a mile off campus and e-mailed vulgar comments about the principal to hundreds of students? Should the student be able to say he's off campus and the school can't do anything about it? "That's wrong," Gerarde said.

If vulgar speech relates to the school or a public event, the school should be able to regulate it, Gerarde said.

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