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Lobbyist wants his law license back

ANNAPOLIS — The fate of lobbyist Ira C. Cooke’s bid for reinstatement to the Maryland bar likely rests with the newest judge on the state’s highest court.

But Judge Robert N. McDonald, who joined the Court of Appeals Jan. 24, gave no indication of support or opposition to Cooke’s cause during oral argument Tuesday on his motion for reinstatement.

The 30-minute session followed the court’s disclosure in November that it was deadlocked 3-3 on whether to reinstate Cooke, who had consented to disbarment in 2005 after being convicted of commercial bribery, grand theft and conspiracy in California.

Cooke sought reinstatement after that conviction was overturned, and the Maryland Court of Appeals had heard his case on Oct. 2, 2008. However, by the time the court made its decision, Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr. had returned to private practice and could not vote on it.

The court, in its Nov. 28 order, did not explain the reason for the three-year delay.

McDonald, who as Murphy’s successor likely holds the tie-breaking vote, asked only one question during Tuesday’s court session.

“Do you ever pursue cases where there has been an acquittal” or conviction overturned on appeal? McDonald asked Bar Counsel Glenn M. Grossman, the Attorney Grievance Commission’s chief prosecutor of lawyer misconduct.

Grossman, who supports Cooke’s reinstatement, said lawyers can still be investigated after criminal proceedings have been concluded.

But the California appellate court’s criticism of Cooke’s trial was so strong — including many citations of judicial error — that the Office of Bar Counsel was convinced that further investigation and a challenge to reinstatement were unwarranted, Grossman added.

“In our discretion, we chose not to pursue this any further,” Grossman said.

M. Albert Figinski, Cooke’s lawyer and former law partner, told the high court that under its attorney discipline rules Cooke’s reinstatement would have been automatic upon the reversal of his conviction had he been suspended based on the guilty verdict rather than disbarred.

Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr. interjected that Cooke had consented to the disbarment.

In response, Figinski said Cooke perhaps made a mistake in representing himself before bar counsel so soon after his conviction and before it was overturned. Cooke hastily agreed to forfeit his license after the bitter trial, rather than make the more considered decision of arguing for suspension, Figinski said.

“He probably didn’t want to see a legal situation again in his life,” Figinski added.

Cooke’s conviction stemmed from the failure of a publicly funded counseling clinic in Kern County, Calif. Cooke had been hired by the owner to look into opening similar clinics in Maryland. However, he was accused of funneling half the fees he received from the Desert Counseling Clinic to the wife of its owner, some $57,000 in all.

Cooke argued unsuccessfully that the payments to Bobbie Cumberworth were compensation for her consulting work on special education issues.

The California appellate court, in overturning the conviction, said the trial judge’s many errors included admitting irrelevant and hearsay testimony and permitting the prosecutor to cite erroneously admitted evidence in his closing argument.

The state of California declined to retry Cooke.

Grossman, appearing before the Court of Appeals, likened Cooke’s bid for reinstatement to that of former Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel, whom the Court of Appeals reinstated to the bar in 1989 after his convictions for mail fraud and racketeering were overturned.

But Judge Sally D. Adkins said further investigation by bar counsel might be warranted in Cooke’s case. She asked if Grossman had reviewed the transcript of Cooke’s California trial and if he would still support reinstatement if that review revealed ethical wrongdoing, even though the conviction was overturned.

Grossman said he could not overlook “the tenor of the appellate opinion,” which found the evidence against Cooke was invalid. The most evident conclusion was that Cooke’s payments were not part of a criminal scheme but compensation for work that had been performed, Grossman added.

Figinski closed his argument Tuesday with a plea to the court.

“Your honors have a duty to protect the public in ways only you can address,” he said. “If I haven’t convinced you, my client will suffer.”

Figinski and Grossman, then-deputy bar counsel, had both urged Cooke’s reinstatement at the 2008 hearing before the high court.

After Tuesday’s session, Figinski declined to comment on the more than three years it took the court to issue a decision regarding reinstatement — only to have that be a tie vote which permitted re-argument — or on his hopes for a quicker resolution this time.

“You’re not going to get me to answer that question,” said Figinski, of the Law Offices of Peter G. Angelos PC in Baltimore. “No comment on that one.”

The case is Petition of Ira C. Cooke for Reinstatement to the Bar of Maryland, AG 82, September Term 2007.

The court did not indicate when it would issue its decision.

Click here to see a webcast of the reinstatement hearing.

Click here to see a webcast of the original hearing on Oct. 2, 2008.