A pair of mortgage fraud investigations in Arizona and Nevada has given rise to an angry spat between two high powered D.C. law firms.
On Monday, Cohen, Milstein, Sellers & Toll partner Linda Singer fired off a terse letter to BuckleySandler, the year-old firm headed by longtime Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom partner Andrew Sandler, demanding that its lawyers “correct the knowingly false assertions” contained in a federal lawsuit it filed last week. The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on behalf of the nation’s largest homebuilder, Pulte Homes, asks a judge to bar the Arizona and Nevada state attorneys general from employing Cohen Milstein to investigate potential mortgage fraud cases against the housing giant.
Cohen Milstein has been involved in the investigations since November 2009, when a group of lawyers, including Singer, brought one of the cases from their former firm, Washington’s Zuckerman Spaeder. But Pulte’s suit alleges that Cohen Milstein has a massive conflict of interest. It claims the firm represents the Laborers International Union of North America, which is allegedly engaged in a “harassment campaign” against Pulte designed to hurt the company’s businesses, and force it to use union workers.
According to the complaint, lawyers at Cohen Milstein, including those leading the Arizona and Nevada investigations, represented the union “in matters relating to the development of mortgage cases against Pulte and other homebuilders.” Representing both the union and the states would violate the rules of professional responsibility in D.C., Arizona and Nevada, Pulte argues. Moreover, it claims Cohen Milstein’s lawyers took confidential information Pulte provided to the Arizona attorney general and shared it with the Nevada attorney general, violating the company’s due process rights.
In her letter, Singer, a former D.C. attorney general, called the complaint’s accusations bunk.
“You have been assured repeatedly in writing and orally, that Cohen Milstein has not represented [the union] in any manner for months and that, prior to my joining Cohen Milstein, my prior firm withdrew from representing [the union] in all Arizona-related matters upon receiving the contract award from the State,” Singer wrote.
She added that by claiming Cohen Milstein still represents the union, BuckleySandler may have violated the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and the D.C. Rules of Professional Conduct. The letter then demanded that the firm amend its complaint, and retract any misleading statements it had made about the case to the press.
Indeed, BuckleySandler did amend it, but perhaps not the way Singer would have liked. Brandishing Singer’s letter as proof, it wrote that Singer’s team had confirmed that they represented the union in matters outside of Arizona until “at least” November 11, 2009, months after it began investigating Pulte.
“Irresponsible lawyers who violate the rules of professional responsibility should not be casting stones,” Sandler, who represents Pulte in the case, said in an interview. “The complaint is accurate and valid and we stand by it.”
Today, Singer sent another angry missive.
“You and your client are engaged in a disgraceful and intolerable abuse of process,” it said. “You are misusing the federal court as a platform for waging a media campaign that diverts attention away from legitimate law enforcement investigations of Pulte’s deceptive mortgage lending and marketing practices.”
A call to Singer was returned by firm spokeswoman, who said Cohen Milstein could not comment directly on the Pulte case. But along with Singer’s letters, the firm provided The National Law Journal with a copy of a message from the Arizona attorney general’s office to BuckleySandler dated March 1. In it, the office states that Cohen Milstein “does not represent any private litigant or union in any case against Pulte.” It says that while Singer did represent “a union on homebuilder issues,” they did not involve any Arizona cases by the time she began work on the state investigation.