For the first 10 years of his legal career, Rich Rochlin toiled out of the public eye – handling relatively obscure cases on financial and business transactions.
But the 36-year-old attorney suddenly burst into the spotlight this week by sharply criticizing Gov. Dannel P. Malloy over allegations that state employees misrepresented their finances in order to receive food stamp benefits following Tropical Storm Irene.
Rochlin says he represents 25 state employees who are in fear of losing their jobs, including 15 who have been formally notified that they are being investigated for fraud. In recent days, Rochlin has engaged in a sharp back-and-forth with Malloy’s legal counsel, Andrew McDonald, and Malloy himself over how the food stamp controversy is being handled.
A colorful character with a beard, Rochlin is a pumped-up, hard-charging lawyer who has hurled rhetorical bombs at Malloy and his aides in an unorthodox style that included showing up at Malloy’s press conference. He has fired off e-mails to the governor’s legal counsel, and publicly posted one of the letters on his web site. The complete newcomer to politics is tangling with those who have been involved in the game for decades. Without mentioning Rochlin by name, Malloy called him a $250-per-hour lawyer who would say whatever was necessary to help his clients.
“I’m taking on the head of the state government, and I’m just one guy with an iPhone and an office from very, very modest roots,’’ Rochlin said Thursday in an interview. “To me, that’s the beauty of living in this country. I don’t seek out the spotlight. This was thrust upon me, and I felt the need to help.’’
In the latest development, Malloy’s top aides were surprised Thursday when Rochlin showed up unexpectedly at a press conference at the state Capitol complex as Malloy announced his new chief of staff. There was no confrontation, but one of Malloy’s aides stood in front of Rochlin at one point to block his view. After Malloy left, Rochlin held a press conference in front of multiple television cameras, announcing the creation of a new web site at www.takethedsnapchallenge.com in which he challenges anyone – including Malloy - to fill out the state’s emergency food stamp forms without making a mistake.
While Rochlin is constantly criticized by Malloy and his staff, public records show that Rochlin once served briefly last year as the personal attorney for one of Malloy’s most trusted aides, Roy Occhiogrosso. Rochlin handled the start of a civil lawsuit filed by Occhiogrosso last year involving a dispute with a home contractor. Rochlin declined to comment on his dealings with Occhiogrosso, citing attorney-client privilege and saying his work is a matter of public record.
Occhiogrosso said he was referred to Rochlin by another lawyer, and he eventually received money from a special fund that is set up to compensate homeowners in disputes with contractors. But Occhiogrosso said that he handled the filings with the compensation fund, and Rochlin was out of the case at that point.
“The guy is everybody’s worst impression of a lawyer,’’ Occhiogrosso said. “He’s like a cartoon character. Hopefully, this guy’s 15 minutes of fame are up soon. … There are several pieces of silverware missing from the drawer.’’
Regarding the future of the food-stamp controversy, Occhiogrosso said, “As to what happens to Rich Rochlin, hopefully he just goes away. He’s achieved his objective. This has been a fairly unusual and odd marketing campaign. We’re done dealing with him.’’
Rochlin responded, “Roy is on my marketing team. He keeps extending my 15 minutes by 10 minutes every night. I thought he was a pro, but he’s getting schooled by a novice, so I feel for him. I thought this guy was a pro. This is amateur hour. It’s like he just came out of an online school for communications. How pathetic.’’
He added, “If he needs advice on how to personally attack me, he has my number. He’s keeping me in the news. I thank him for that. … He’s making all the classic mistakes. My clients’ story is getting out. The governor’s administration is being exposed as incompetent. The governor won’t look at the evidence, so we have to keep talking about it.’’
A Connecticut native who was reared by a single mother in Hamden, Rochlin graduated from American University in Washington, D.C. in 1997. He served as an intern under U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman before attending the University of Connecticut Law School, where he became managing editor of the law review. From there, he went to work for two large law firms: Boston-based Bingham McCutchen, which has nearly 1,100 lawyers and Dechert LLP, which has more than 800 lawyers. He later became a partner at the Hartford-based Shipman and Goodwin before starting up his own firm.
With no high-profile work in Connecticut politics, Rochlin became involved in the food stamp controversy through a client who had two friends who are state employees and received food-stamp benefits. Through word of mouth, employees told others to the point where Rochlin now represents 22 state employees.
“This is a political investigation,’’ Rochlin said. “If I didn’t meet them in the political realm, my clients would be at a disadvantage. I’m one guy with some clients who has the governor responding to what I’m saying.’’
McDonald has publicly questioned whether Rochlin has any clients at all, based on a brief conversation last Saturday in which Rochlin refused to release their names. Since then, Rochlin says more clients have stepped forward, and he is representing them – so far – without charge on a pro bono basis.
“Andrew McDonald says I’m a shill for clients. He’s a shill for votes,’’ Rochlin said. “I don’t have purported clients. I’m not making up that I have clients.’’
Rochlin has been laughed at by Malloy supporters, but some others think he has gotten his message across for a first-timer in the rough-and-tumble world of politics.
"He's been pretty impressive on the PR front for not having been involved in this before,'' one insider said. "It was sort of a one-sided game until he stepped forward. ... Each time he gets his name in the paper, he gets more clients. A week ago, nobody heard of Rich Rochlin, and he's got free TV ads running every night [on the local television news]. It's brilliant. ... He's the exact right guy because he has nothing to lose.''
While the Malloy administration says the U.S. Attorney’s office is investigating, Rochlin says that FBI agents and federal prosecutors have such a full plate of investigations that they generally look for big-money scandals and widespread corruption. In the food-stamp case, the maximum amount that a person could receive was $1,202, but that was only if they claimed to have a family of eight. A family of four would receive a maximum of $668.
Several veteran defense lawyers agree with Rochlin, saying that the FBI would traditionally look at systemic, coordinated fraud and not an individual's case for a relatively small amount of money.
“I haven’t heard of any situation where the feds would prosecute $600 fraud,’’ Rochlin said. “The feds rarely take on stuff this small. The feds don’t have the resources to take on $600 issues.’’Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun