If there was just one tenet of belief among the sneaky ranks of big-time criminal defense attorneys, it would be this: Thou shall not squeal on a client.
Francis Pignatelli was a prominent defense attorney in Ohio until 2005, when federal agents learned that he had been helping clients launder drug money in exchange for a cut of the proceeds. To temporarily avoid prosecution, Pignatelli acted as an undercover informant for investigators, helping to obtain evidence that led to the arrest of thirty people. Some of his former clients were sentenced to lengthy federal prison sentences, and Pignatelli was effectively run out of the Ohio judicial system.
So what does an ambitious, middle-aged attorney do? In Pignatelli's case, he headed west to Colorado.
After being granted his state law license in June 2007, Pignatelli quickly established himself in the local legal defense community, earning a long list of major federal cases and working alongside attorneys like Harvey Steinberg.
Court records show Pignatelli was handling as many as sixty criminal cases in Colorado earlier this year when the Akron Beacon Journal wrote several articles detailing his alleged participation in criminal schemes and backdoor assistance to police. On February 3, the Supreme Court's Office of Attorney Regulation filed a petition to suspend Pignatelli on the grounds that he lied on his 2006 Colorado Bar application. For Question 34, asking if the applicant had ever been under investigation, Pignatelli wrote "No."
The petition also described Pignatelli's alleged criminal misdeeds:
From June 2002 until April 2005, federal and Ohio state authorities conducted an extensive investigation into a large scale crystal methamphetamine and ecstasy distribution organization... During the course of such investigation, which involved the use of court ordered interception of wire communication over cellular telephones, investigators learned that [Pignatelli] seemed to be involved in the criminal conspiracy. Particularly, intercepted telephone conversations indicated that [Pignatelli] was instructing members of the conspiracy about ways to avoid law enforcement detection and how to launder proceeds of the illegal drug trafficking. In addition, it appeared that [he] was attempting to introduce distributors of controlled substances to each other in an effort to ensure supplies of illegal drugs would flow.
Drug-dealing clients in Cleveland, meet drug-dealing clients in Akron. Agents confronted Pignatelli at his house in December 2005. Inside, they apparently found $639,000 in dirty cash and a man quite willing to squawk to save his own hide. It's that last part that seems to really galls his peers. The legal blog Simple Justice called the "lawyer rat" one of the "lowest scoundrels to ever call himself a criminal defense lawyer." (Ouch. That's like being named the shortest guy in a room full of midgets.)
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Pignatelli's office, at 789 Sherman Street, has been abandoned, and he has not returned Westword's calls for comment. Since the suspension petition dropped, several of his clients have reported that Pignatelli is not returning their calls, either, and that he has been a no-show at hearings. Numerous hearings have had to be continued because clients have had a tough time finding new representation on such sort notice. Darius Moore, who's facing federal drugs and weapons charges, wrote a letter on February 10 to Judge Robert E. Blackburn requesting assistance in finding a new lawyer:
My mother hired Francis Pignatelli, only later to find out that the DA did not want to work with him. My mother and a friend found an article on him. That was pretty disturbing. My sister contacted an agent and was told that Mr. Pignatelli is not allowed in the Federal Court Building.
Moore does note that Pignatelli did apologize to his mother and return her money. But Moore still didn't have a lawyer at his February 19 motions hearing, prompting Judge Blackburn to order that the attorney/client relationship between Pignatelli and Moore be terminated immediately. On February 20, a state judge officially revoked Pagnatelli's law license, which would have come in handy, considering that Ohio is still considering slapping him with charges.