William "Bill" Shannon Lerach (born March 14, 1946, Ohio River Valley, Midwestern United States) is a disbarred lawyer who specialized in private securities class action lawsuits. The $7.12 billion he obtained as the lead plaintiff's attorney in the case against Enron is currently the largest sum ever recovered in a group of securities class-action lawsuits in U.S. history. In 2007 he pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and was sentenced to two years imprisonment. In 2009 he was disbarred from practicing law in California. As part of the settlement, Lerach would not cooperate as a witness and his law firm would be protected from any further prosecution.
Lerach was appointed by President Clinton to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council in 1998. He was also a figure in ending the Joe Camel advertising and marketing campaign by RJ Reynolds. Lerach successfully argued the case in front of the California Supreme Court, stating that R.J. Reynolds' Joe Camel campaign constituted a fraudulent business practice because it targeted minors and induced minors and cigarette sellers to break the law.
In 2007, Lerach pleaded guilty to one count of obstruction of justice and began a two-year prison sentence. He was disbarred in 2009. Lerach was a major Democratic donor for many years. His case and sentencing were presided over by US District Court Judge John F. Walter.
Lerach earned his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Pittsburgh. He gave the May 2003 Commencement Address "American Law: Instrument of Social Progress or Weapon of Repression?" at the Univ of Pittsburgh Law School. The University of Pittsburgh bestowed one of its highest awards on Lerach, designating him a "Legacy Laureate" reserved for the University's most outstanding graduates. He was a major financial donor to Democratic Party organizations at the state and national level.
On a televised PBS broadcast, Lerach was part of a panel to discuss accounting fraud, corporate misconduct and securities laws and regulations on the program, "NOW with Bill Moyers" on September 27, 2002 and November 21, 2003.
Cheney and Halliburton
Lerach was successful in suing some of the largest names in American business and was suing Halliburton and its then CEO Dick Cheney, the Vice President of the United States, when he fell from grace. Lerach had turned his sights on Halliburton and Cheney, the former CEO. In Lerach's lawsuit against Halliburton, he argued that Cheney had fled the company just ahead of the stock collapse, finding refuge in the White House. The attorney was in a position to subpoena and demand public testimony from the vice president, and he doubted that Cheney would be able to successfully hide behind a claim of executive privilege.
Guilty plea and imprisonment
Before leaving his law practice in August 2007, Lerach was a partner in the San Diego-based firm Lerach Coughlin Stoia Geller Rudman & Robbins, now known as Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd. He had founded the firm in 2004 as a spinoff from Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach; the latter firm was subsequently indicted in 2006 for paying kickbacks to clients in its class action securities lawsuits, a scheme in which Lerach would later be alleged to have taken part.
According to a June 2007 statement in which he alluded to the ongoing Milberg Weiss investigation, Lerach said he was considering retirement from Lerach Coughlin. On August 31, 2007, Lerach left the firm, which first changed its name to Coughlin Stoia Geller Rudman & Robbins and later to the Robbins Geller of today.
Lerach pleaded guilty to one felony count of conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice and making false declarations under oath related to his involvement in the Milberg Weiss kickback scheme. On February 11, 2008, he was sentenced to two years in federal prison, two years' probation, fined $250,000, and ordered to complete 1,000 hours of community service. He was imprisoned at the Federal Correctional Facility, Safford, Arizona. The final two-and-a-half months were spent in home confinement following stints in the Arizona federal prison and a halfway house in San Diego. His license to practice law was suspended in December 2008 and on March 12, 2009, he was disbarred by the California State Bar. He was officially released from custody on March 8, 2010. Lerach's former Milberg Weiss partner, Melvyn Weiss, was similarly sentenced in early June 2008.
In an interview following his release, Lerach offered his thoughts and opinions that possible political motivation and the timing of his indictment could have been likely factors in his prosecution. He also stated that his firm's modus operandi was generally accepted legal practice regarding lead plaintiffs in class action lawsuits.
Circle of Greed
In March 2010, a book about Lerach's life and career was published. Circle of Greed: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Lawyer Who Brought Corporate America to its Knees was written by journalists Patrick Dillon and Carl M. Cannon.
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- http://www.cfo.com/article.cfm/4245836?f=home_breakingnews/ Enron Settlements Hit Record $7 Billion, August 3, 2005
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- "NOW with Bill Moyers. Transcript. Risky Business. September 27, 2002". PBS. Retrieved February 2, 2012.
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- "Press Release: Circle of Greed by Carl M. Cannon and Patrick Dillon « Crown Publishing – Broadway Books". Broadway-books.crownpublishing.com. March 2, 2010. Retrieved February 2, 2012.
- Drake, Bruce (March 9, 2010). "'Circle of Greed': The Rise and Fall of a Self-Appointed Legal Robin Hood". Politicsdaily.com. Retrieved February 2, 2012.
- Justin Scheck (August 16, 2005). "Lerach Hunkers Down After Indictment". The National Law Journal.
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- Justin Scheck (June 1, 2007). "Milberg Partners Talk Pleas With Prosecutors". The National Law Journal.
When the probe began in 1999, it was focused on Lerach.
- Julie Creswell (June 1, 2007). "Top Lawyer, Under Fire, May Depart". The New York Times.
- Molly Selvin (June 1, 2007). "Class-action lawyer could face charges". Los Angeles Times.
- Greg Farrell (July 9, 2007). "Plea may aid case against law partners". USA TODAY.
- Jenny Anderson (August 29, 2007). "Lawyer Quits Firm to Focus on Inquiry". The New York Times.
According to the indictment, in the early stages of the scheme, which lasted from the 1970s through 2005, Milberg Weiss partners provided cash to pay the kickbacks since it is illegal for a plaintiff to receive any portion of the legal fees, which could be viewed as an incentive to settle rather than act in the best interest of the class. The firm would later award those partners bonus payments equal to the amounts they had paid in.
- Carrie Johnson (August 29, 2007). "Lerach to Leave Law Firm As He Tries to End Probe". The Washington Post.
- Mark Lachter (August 31, 2007). "Snag in Lerach plea deal". LA Biz Observed.
- Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP website.
- Mr. Lerach pled guilty to a one count criminal information. http://graphics8.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/business/19legal_pleaagreement.pdf
- "Lawyer William Lerach sentenced to 2 years in class-action kickback scheme". Chicago Tribune. Associated Press. February 12, 2008.
I pleaded guilty in this case because I was guilty," Lerach said before sentencing. "It was, as they say, felony stupid.
- Karen SloanContactAll Articles (April 13, 2010). "Out of Prison, Lerach May Get a Teaching Job". Law.com. Retrieved February 2, 2012.
- Carrie Johnson (February 12, 2008). "Lerach Gets Two Years In Prison for Kickbacks". The Washington Post.
- California Bar Journal, October 2009, p. 17.
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- Edvard Pettersson (June 2, 2008). "Weiss Sentenced to 2½ Years for Kickback Scheme (Update1)". Bloomberg L.P.
Weiss, 72, must also forfeit $9.75 million and pay a fine of $250,000. He pleaded guilty April 2 to racketeering conspiracy, admitting he helped secretly pay a stable of plaintiffs to file suits from 1979 through 2005. By using them to sue first, the firm was more likely to lead cases and reap larger fees. ... Lerach is serving a two-year prison term after pleading guilty to conspiracy last year. Weiss faced as much as 40 years in prison if convicted at trial.
- Hettena, Seth (March 24, 2010). "Fear and Loathing in the Boardroom". Voice of San Diego. Retrieved August 20, 2017.
- Cavanaugh, Maureen. "The Story Of Bill Lerach's Fighting For Consumers". KPBS.org. Retrieved February 2, 2012.
- LaCroix, Kevin (March 14, 2010). "Interview with the Authors of "Circle of Greed": The D & O Diary". The D & O Diary. Retrieved August 20, 2017.