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In re Abrams

June 30, 1975

IN THE MATTER OF ARTHUR LAWRENCE ABRAMS, AN ATTORNEY-AT-LAW, APPELLANT


APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY. (D.C. Misc. No. 74-53).

Seitz, Chief Judge, Van Dusen, Aldisert, Adams, Rosenn, Hunter and Weis, Circuit Judges. Rosenn, Circuit Judge, concurring. Adams, Circuit Judge, concurring and dissenting. Chief Judge Seitz and Judge Van Dusen join in this opinion. Van Dusen, Circuit Judge, concurring and dissenting.

Author: Aldisert

Opinion OF THE COURT

ALDISERT, Circuit Judge.

Arthur Lawrence Abrams appeals from an order of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey disbarring him from the practice of law in that court. The circumstances giving rise to this litigation relate to Abrams' issuance of a check, drawn on a trust account and ultimately used to satisfy the extortion of Jersey City officials. The Supreme Court of New Jersey ordered his suspension from the practice of law for one year. In re Abrams, 65 N.J. 172, 320 A.2d 471 (1974). Acting on the same evidentiary material, and without conducting a separate evidentiary hearing, the district court entered its order.*fn1 The question presented for review is the propriety of the district court's action.

I.

Although the facts relevant to the charge against Abrams are not in dispute, we will accept the statement of facts presented in the United States Attorney's brief defending the action of the district court:

The order appealed from had its genesis in an investigation conducted by the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation ("SCI"). In August 1971, appellant, Arthur Lawrence Abrams, and his client Ezra Sensibar refused, on the basis of the Fifth Amendment, to answer certain questions propounded by the SCI. Thereafter, formal immunity was conferred upon them and their subsequent public testimony in October 1971 formed the predicate for the filing of formal charges against Abrams by the Essex County Ethics Committee. At Abrams' specific request, his testimony and that of Sensibar was made part of the record of the ensuing disciplinary proceeding. Although several charges were initially filed against Abrams, only one charge is now relevant. That charge was as follows:

On April 22, 1969, by check bearing that date drawn on his trust account in the National Newark and Essex Bank, in Newark, respondent did pay to Construction Aggregates Corporation the sum of $20,000 allegedly for engineering services which sum respondent well knew would be used by said corporation, or an officer thereof, for an illegal and improper purpose contrary to and in violation of N.J.S. 2A:93-6 as a bribe to and to satisfy the extortionate demands of certain public officials of the City of Jersey City.

The facts relevant to that charge are set forth below.

In 1967, appellant became aware through Clinton B. Snyder, a Jersey City real estate broker, of the impending sale of Jersey City waterfront property. Appellant communicated this information to Ezra Sensibar, president of Construction Aggregates Corporation, a firm which specialized in the construction and operation of port facilities. Thereafter, appellant, Snyder and Sensibar formed the E.S.C.A. Corporation (later renamed the Port Jersey Corporation and hereinafter referred to as "Port Jersey") to bid on the Jersey City waterfront property. The respective ownership interests in Port Jersey were: Construction Aggregates Corporation 60%, Snyder 20% and appellant 20%. On August 1, 1967, the waterfront property was auctioned and Port Jersey was the successful bidder, having bid $2,040,000.

The waterfront property was essentially a swamp. In addition, it was isolated from city services, such as water and sewerage, and could not be easily reached due to the lack of access roads. In order to develop the property as a port facility, it was necessary in the judgment of the principals of Port Jersey to secure cooperation from the City of Jersey City in the form of construction of access roads and water and sewerage lines to the property and the providing of favorable tax treatment. At the time Port Jersey successfully bid on the property, the City of Jersey City had not announced that it was committing itself to furnish the various forms of cooperation Abrams and his co-venturers deemed essential.

Shortly after the auction, a meeting was arranged by Sensibar to obtain the necessary cooperation. The meeting was held at the offices of Comparetto and Kenny, a local architectural and engineering firm, and was attended by John V. Kenny [ de facto political leader of Hudson County], Sensibar and Snyder. At the meeting, Sensibar told John V. Kenny that Port Jersey would need many forms of cooperation from the City of Jersey City in order to make the development of the port facility possible. Kenny agreed to furnish the cooperation requested and told Sensibar that, if anybody asked him for money, he, Sensibar, should come to him, Kenny, and he would take care of it. After being assured of cooperation, Sensibar asked Kenny whether there were any local people who should be taken into the venture. Kenny responded that he would appreciate Port Jersey's employing Comparetto and Kenny as its architect. Abrams was out of town at the time of the meeting but was subsequently advised by Sensibar and Snyder as to what had transpired at the meeting.

Port Jersey thereafter decided to retain Comparetto and Kenny as its architects because of John V. Kenny's suggestion and because they were "well regarded, well connected locally." Abrams negotiated the contractual terms and drafted the contract, which was entered into in December 1967.

In March of 1968, Abrams and Sensibar met with Mayor Whelan and City Council President Flaherty at a party at the New York Athletic Club and Abrams explained to these officials the various forms of cooperation which Port Jersey would require. No commitment was made at that time to furnish the cooperation requested. Thereafter, Abrams negotiated a contract with the City of Jersey City in which the City agreed to construct the necessary access roads and to lay water and sewerage lines to the property.

Title to the property did not pass until November 21, 1968. During the period intervening between the successful bid and the closing on the property, appellant, in addition to the negotiations described above had negotiated certain purchases of adjoining properties in order to resolve potential title problems and had also negotiated a $6,000,000 development loan.

Following the closing of title, the city council of Jersey City adopted various resolutions providing for the furnishing of the access roads, water and sewerage lines. In addition, the city council adopted a resolution authorizing the payment of a 5% brokerage commission to the C.B. Snyder Realty Company, a firm in which Snyder had a one-third interest. No provision had been made for the payment of the commission, which amounted to $102,000, either in the bid specifications, announced when the property was auctioned, or in the closing documents which were executed when title passed.

Upon receipt of the $102,000 in January 1969, Snyder paid Abrams half, pursuant to an oral arrangement entered into between them at some earlier date. Abrams deposited the $51,000 he received in a special account, denominated the Arthur Lawrence Abrams Trust Account. This money remained in the trust account for more than two years and was ultimately utilized in part to make a $20,000 payment to the president of the Jersey City council.*fn2

In late January or early February 1969, Abrams attended a luncheon with Snyder and Bernard Kenny at the Downtown Club in Newark. At that time, Kenny stated that the "organization", which appellant took to mean the Hudson County Democratic Organization, wanted a percentage of the construction costs of the port facility in cash. At that time, the estimated cost of construction of the projected port facility was somewhere between fifty and one hundred million dollars. When this demand was made, Abrams didn't think it was necessary to ask Kenny any details nor did Kenny think it was necessary to tell appellant any details. Kenny did not threaten but did indicate that, in the absence of payment, Port Jersey would experience difficulties. Abrams did not argue with Kenny or discuss the matter further with him.

Following the meeting, Abrams telephoned Sensibar in Chicago and was told by Sensibar that he, Sensibar, would take care of it. Thereafter, Sensibar met with Flaherty in New York. He told Flaherty that he was getting complaints about a lack of cooperation and reminded Flaherty of his, Sensibar's, original discussion with John V. Kenny and the promise of cooperation. Flaherty said that he knew about that discussion but that the organization needed money. He suggested to Sensibar that Port Jersey contribute 3% of the cost of construction. Sensibar refused and the meeting ended.

A couple of weeks later, Sensibar arranged a meeting with John V. Kenny. He told Kenny of Flaherty's demand and reminded him of their earlier discussion. Kenny responded by telling Sensibar that he remembered the discussion and would stand by it but that a campaign contribution would be appreciated because the organization had an expensive campaign. Sensibar did not respond and the meeting ended. Sensibar returned to Chicago "with the intention that we would not make any substantial contribution".

In early April, Abrams, Snyder and Bernard Kenny told Sensibar they were stymied at city hall and suggested that he, Sensibar, have another meeting with Flaherty. A meeting was held in Flaherty's office on April 19 between Sensibar and Flaherty. At that meeting, Flaherty told Sensibar that he, Flaherty, needed $140,000 to finance the balance of the campaign and that he had to go to a few large contributors to get the money. He also told Sensibar that the proposal he, Flaherty, had made before was unrealistic and he was now willing to come down to 1% of construction costs as a contribution. Sensibar offered a contribution of $10,000, and, after discussion, Sensibar and Flaherty agreed to the making of a $20,000 contribution.

After this meeting with Flaherty, Sensibar consulted with Abrams and Snyder, who both told him "that it was unrealistic to expect that we could do as much construction work, as much business as we were doing in Hudson County without acceding to a shakedown of some kind. They [Abrams and Snyder] thought that $20,000 in the circumstances might be nominal and they urged that I should arrange for us to pay it".

Thereafter, Abrams issued a $20,000 check on the Arthur Lawrence Abrams Trust Account at Sensibar's request for the purpose of enabling Sensibar to obtain the $20,000 in cash he had agreed to pay to Flaherty. At Sensibar's instruction, Abrams falsely represented on the face of the check that it was issued in payment "For Engineering Services". Thereafter, Sensibar sent Abrams a false invoice reflecting a $20,000 charge for engineering services. Sensibar cashed the check and delivered the cash to Snyder, who in turn delivered it to Flaherty. Afterwards, Port Jersey received cooperation from the City in regards to sewerage, water, access roads and favorable tax treatment.

U.S. Attorney's Brief at 4-9 (footnotes and appendix references omitted).

In 1973, the Essex County Ethics Committee charged Abrams with various ethical violations stemming from his activities for Port Jersey. In reviewing those charges, however, the New Jersey Supreme Court concerned itself only with Abrams' "knowing participation in the $20,000 payment to the Jersey City officials." In re Abrams, supra, 65 N.J. at 177, 320 A.2d at 474. After detailing the factual circumstances which spawned the allegations of impropriety, the state court stated:

We are concerned with the respondent, a member of the bar who, apart from his financial interest in the venture, was acting as legal counsel and was bound by the high ethical principles of his profession. Those principles clearly dictated that he play no part whatever in the corrupt $20,000 payment to the public officials of Jersey City. We are entirely satisfied that that respondent's participation in the corrupt payment . . . was unethical and calls for some measure of discipline.

The determination as to the measure of discipline is difficult and, as we have repeatedly pointed out, "each case must rest largely upon its own particular circumstances." . . . We have concluded that the respondent's professional dereliction warrants suspension from the practice of law for a period of one year and until further order; judgment to that effect will be entered.

Ibid. at 178-79, 320 A.2d at 474-75.

II.

Preliminarily we emphasize that which is before us and that which is not. We are not to decide Abrams' right to practice in this court. We are not in the position of the United States Supreme Court reviewing a disciplinary action imposed by a state court or determining one's right to continue to practice in that Court. We are to decide if reversible error was committed when the district court, under the circumstances of this ...


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