Car crash at lawyer's door leads to ethics case


Of all the intersections in town to wreck a car, Robert Himes chose Chase and St. Paul. This did not pass without notice in lawyer Robert S. Yacono's office three stories above.

To hear those in charge of enforcing ethics among Maryland lawyers, Mr. Yacono's staff took direct marketing to a new plateau by approaching accident victims and offering legal services. Sometimes they'd even offer to call an ambulance.

This time, business was practically knocking down the door.

"I went down and spoke to Mr. Himes and gave him a card," former Yacono employee Joseph Somerville said yesterday in Baltimore Circuit Court. With that, another piece of evidence was registered against Mr. Yacono, who finds his license to practice law on the line.

Mr. Yacono, a lawyer since 1987, is accused of paying Mr. Somerville and another man (referred to in court files only as "Sonny") to improperly solicit clients at four accident scenes in 1988 and 1989. He's also accused of paying Mr. Somerville, who is not an attorney, under the table to act as one.

And he's accused of improperly handling clients' money, failing to place it in escrow accounts as required.

To all this Mr. Yacono has said . . . not very much. Leaving the courthouse yesterday during the lunch break, he would say only, "I think my side was fairly and accurately told in court."

But when he took the witness stand at an earlier hearing last month, Mr. Yacono invoked his right against self-incrimination and refused to answer nearly every question. As for what was told in court yesterday, Mr. Somerville provided some damaging testimony -- when he wasn't invoking his Fifth Amendment right.

"I'll take the Fifth on that," Mr. Somerville said half a dozen times, usually to questions on whether he had handled the settlements on accident claims involving Mr. Yacono's clients. He also refused to answer a question suggesting that Mr. Yacono, while recuperating from heart surgery, left blank checks for his use.

Kendall R. Calhoun, a lawyer for the state's Attorney Grievance Commission, noted that Mr. Somerville had admitted in a prior hearing to settling cases and doling out checks. Making matters worse for Mr. Yacono, who is acting as his own attorney, Judge Ellen L. Hollander ruled that Mr. Somerville's statements during the earlier hearing would be allowed as evidence against the lawyer.

Mr. Somerville, 49, said he began working for Mr. Yacono in 1987, getting paid just to stay with the lawyer in his office in a "very bad neighborhood" along North Avenue. The practice later moved to East Chase Street, and Mr. Somerville began doing filing, clerical and, allegedly, legal work.

But, he testified, he always made it a point to telephone Mr. Yacono if he had to make a "major decision."

As he left the courthouse Mr. Somerville was asked whether he was concerned he might be charged with a crime. "I wasn't until the judge asked me if I had a lawyer," he said.

After receiving memorandums from the Grievance Commission lawyers and Mr. Yacono next month, Judge Hollander will rule on the facts of the case.

Those findings will then be sent to the Maryland Court of Appeals, which will decide whether Mr. Yacono will be disciplined.

The Grievance Commission's complaint against Mr. Yacono says he no longer maintains a law office, but Ms. Calhoun said yesterday he apparently is working for another attorney.

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