By Leigh Jones
A disciplinary sanctions deal struck between the D.C. Office of Bar Counsel and a former Adelphia Communications Corp. executive over alleged moral turpitude has won the approval of the D.C. Court of Appeals.
In a case of first impression, the three-judge panel ruled today that the parties could agree to a one-year suspension of Michael Rigas’ law license without engaging in a fact-finding mission to determine whether he committed moral turpitude. The suspension applied retroactively and Rigas completed it in January 2007.
The court, which also adopted guidelines submitted by the D.C. Board on Professional Responsibility for handling moral turpitude cases, found that the agreement balanced Rigas’ right to waive an evidentiary hearing with the district’s duty of protecting the public from unethical lawyers.
The Office of Bar Counsel declined to comment on the case. Rigas could not be reached for comment.
Rigas, former chief operations officer at Adelphia, pleaded guilty in 2005 to making a false entry in financial records, avoiding retrial on securities and bank fraud charges. Adelphia, a cable company founded by his father, John Rigas, went bankrupt after John Rigas and his other son, Timothy Rigas, pilfered millions from the company and hid its debt from investors, prosecutors alleged.
John and Timothy Rigas were convicted in June 2005. The elder Rigas was sentenced to 15 years in prison. His son received a 20-year sentence. They lost an appeal in 2007.
Following Michael Rigas’ plea, the Court of Appeals in 2005 ordered the Board on Professional Responsibility to investigate whether he had violated D.C.’s moral turpitude law when he committed the federal record-keeping crime. The following year, the board found that violating the federal law did not, on its face, run afoul of the D.C. moral turpitude law. The board then referred the case to a hearing committee to conduct a full investigation to determine whether the facts supported a finding of moral turpitude. Before the hearing committee conducted its investigation, the D.C. Bar Counsel reached an agreement with Rigas upon a year’s suspension.
In today’s decision, the Court of Appeals found that “a formal contested hearing” by a hearing committee to determine whether Rigas had committed moral turpitude “would be of little benefit.” It found that since the federal criminal proceeding had not determined that Rigas knowingly signed false documents (a finding needed for moral turpitude), a separate inquiry by a hearing committee was not necessary.
The guidelines for handling moral turpitude disciplinary cases adopted by the court in the same decision, among other things, call for bar counsel to vigorously pursue such matters and for a hearing committee to determine that all reasonable avenues of investigation have been pursued.
Writing the opinion was Judge Kathryn Oberly. Judge Theodore Newman and Judge Inez Smith Reid also were on the panel.