He was a flamboyant criminal defense attorney, well- known in the state criminal courts in Harris County for his courtroom theatrics and his contentious, often contemptuous, demeanor before the trial judges presiding over the cases he was defending.
By many accounts, he had the ability to be both an effective and successful advocate.
Committing Crimes Against His Clients
But Abraham Moses Fisch had a growing problem: he became so contemptuous of the legal system over the years that lying, deceiving, and committing crimes against his own clients became, somehow, a rational choice. Whatever the reasons, his criminal behavior would both tarnish his personal reputation and threaten to undermine the integrity of the legal system we have fought to maintain.
This past May, Fisch was convicted on 18 counts of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, money laundering, conspiracy to commit money laundering and failure to file tax returns. It took the jury 14 hours of deliberations to convict him after a 15-day trial.
Attorney Guaranteed Dismissals
According to the government, Fisch, along with a former Houston used car financier named Lloyd Glen Williams, was involved in a scheme to defraud his clients, who were criminal defendants, and their families, with promises of successful results in their cases. The government press release issued following Fisch’s conviction said the two men “conspired to defraud defendants who were facing federal criminal charges in Houston.” The government added that the fraud was “perpetrated in at least four different federal criminal cases pending in Houston …”
In exchange for what the government called “exorbitant fees,” prosecutors argued that Fisch told the clients and their family members that Williams had “government contacts” in Washington, D.C., who could guarantee dismissal of their criminal cases. According to prosecutors, the clients and their families shelled out millions of dollars in attorney fees believing Fisch, through Williams, had contacts at the CIA, FBI, Department of Justice, and Medicare who could help them—none of which was true.
15 Years in Prison and Forfeiture of 1.2 Million
On October 27, a federal district court judge sentenced Fisch to serve 15 years in a federal prison and ordered forfeiture of nearly $1.2 million, the disgraced attorney told the sentencing judge that the criminal case “one of the most humbling experiences of my life.”
After pleading for voluntary surrender, Fisch was unceremoniously taken into custody for his trip to a federal prison facility.
State Bar Next
So what happens now to Mr. Fisch? Will the federal conviction lead to disbarment by the State Bar of Texas?
While attorneys involved in drug addiction and related crimes often get a second chance, attorneys involved in serious felonies involving fraud, dishonesty or deceit are usually disbarred.
Given the nature of the crimes of conviction and the fact that they committed upon his clients, Fisch will most likely be disbarred, unless he surrenders his license while the disciplinary action is pending.
And that is how it should be.
Mr. Fisch engaged in conduct he knew was criminal against his clients. This conduct put his personal financial interest above that of his clients, who he owed his highest duty. He violated the most essential element of the attorney client relationship, that of loyalty to his clients.
Serious Felonies Lead to Disbarment
Houston television station KHOU reported in 2011 that “Attorneys in Texas who snort drugs, flee from police, even offer to trade their legal services for sex [can] still keep their Texas State Bar law license. These are some of the findings of the KHOU-TV 11 News I-Team after analyzing records from various criminal courts along with documents from the Texas State Bar.” This may be true for misdemeanors and felonies for which plea bargains are struck for deferred adjudication probation, where there is no final finding of guilt, but disbarment is generally mandatory for serious felonies upon final conviction.
In fact, the Texas Rules of Disciplinary Procedure require disbarment for “intentional crimes,” defined as serious crimes that require proof of knowledge or intent as an essential element.
On September 28, 2015, Ernst Mitchell “Mitch” Martzen, writing in the Dallas Bar Journal, called attention to statistics from the Texas Bar Journal (TBJ) between 2007-2011 showing that there were “100 significant cases of attorney discipline resulting from criminal behavior” by Texas attorneys. Most of the criminal behavior involved white collar crime such as “fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, tax evasion or theft.” Interestingly, Martzen noted that the average profile of the attorneys involved in this criminal behavior was a 52-year-old white male who received a prison term from 5 to 7 years.
Slightly more than half of the attorney cases that led to discipline were prosecuted in state courts while the rest, like Fisch, were prosecuted in federal courts. Federal convictions over this time period led to 50 of the attorneys being disciplined, according to the Martzen’s examination of the TBJ.
Federal Crimes Taken Seriously By Bar
However, attorneys prosecuted at the federal level were punished far more severely. As Martzen explained:
“Over half of all attorney crimes involved dishonesty, such as fraud, tax evasion, forgery or theft of fiduciary property. These offenses are taken very seriously, and nearly every attorney convicted of such crimes ultimately resigned from the bar or was disbarred…”
What’s Good for the Goose…
We have written here much about prosecutorial misconduct, much of it involving conduct that should be classified as criminal behavior by prosecutors against criminal defendants. We have exhaustively pointed out that prosecutors who commit this insidious type of wrongdoing are rarely charged with a crime, forced to answer a disciplinary action or subjected to any civil liability. However, private attorneys who commit crimes against either their clients or the public at large will, more often than not, be indicted, convicted, and disbarred.
Saying this does not mean we minimize Abraham Fisch’s criminal behavior. Given the crimes of his conviction, this attorney deserves both criminal and disciplinary sanctions. His behavior stained the reputation of all attorneys, especially criminal defense attorneys, and reinforces the suspicious attitude of the public about our institutions of justice.
Attorneys Must Maintain the Highest Standards of Conduct
The Abraham Moses Fisch case demonstrates something that criminal defense attorneys know far too well; that the human condition is a frail one and that attorneys who do not adhere to the highest standards of ethical conduct often find themselves on the slippery slope towards professional and personal ruin.
This is a difficult blog to write. Abraham Fisch was a fellow criminal defense lawyer and, as fellow criminal defense lawyers who fight against prosecutors every day, we all cringe at the prospect of one of our own being prosecuted by “other side.” But, what Mr. Fisch was convicted of offends us more than our natural self protection of our own kind. He betrayed and defrauded his own clients, criminal defendants who were facing years in federal prison and were desperate to find a way out of a life shattering situation. We rail at the government when they abuse criminal defendants and would be intellectually dishonest to ignore Mr. Fisch’s insult upon our professional calling.
While we are disgusted with Mr. Fisch’s conduct, our job, as criminal defense attorneys, is not to judge but stay true to our duty to defend those who find themselves in the cross-hairs of the government. We will let juries judge human failures. However, we will continue to demand that both prosecutors and defense lawyers be held to the highest professional standards, because doing less threatens the lives and liberty of those we have sworn to serve.