When Maureen McGinley’s lawyer couldn’t save her from 10 years in prison for dealing cocaine, she turned to Alan Ellis.
Ellis, based in San Francisco, is one of a handful of “post-conviction” attorneys who help the convicted get the most out of the federal prison system.
With Ellis’ help, McGinley’s sentence was cut to eight years and a month. McGinley, 41, is serving the last four years at the Federal Prison Camp in Alderson, a minimum-security prison for nonviolent women.
“I was told if you want the best, get Alan Ellis,” McGinley said.
“Our aim is to get our clients the lowest possible sentence to be served at the best place possible,” Ellis said. “Our names are written on all the bathroom walls of all the federal prisons of America.”
Ellis, 50, a defense lawyer for 25 years with offices in San Francisco and Philadelphia, started out representing Pennsylvania college students busted for possessing small amounts of marijuana.
“If their friends got in trouble, they would tell them about me,” he said. “So I wound up expanding my practice.”
The benefits some of Ellis’ clients get are “Club Feds,” minimum-security facilities that appear, at first glance, to be luxury resorts rather than institutions for incarceration and punishment.
Ellis commands $350 an hour, but boasts, “I can do in one hour what another lawyer who might charge $175 an hour might take three hours to do.”
Gary Wallace, one of Ellis’ former clients, says Ellis helped him get released early, in April, from a minimum-security facility in Oregon.
Wallace was sentenced to 15 years in prison for one count of dealing cocaine, but Ellis reviewed his case and helped reduce the sentence by 18 months with credit for time served.
“Alan is the second most expensive investment you will ever make after your house,” Wallace said. “And he may end up with your house. But good lawyers aren’t cheap and Alan is a very good lawyer.”
Wallace says he, indeed, had to sell his house to pay Ellis.
But Richard Stratton, editor of Prison Life magazine and a former convict, has a different perspective.
He accused Ellis of “preying on . . . very desperate people who will cling to any kind of hope. He’s advertising falsely and delivering very little because very little can be delivered in these cases.”
Ellis says his work is necessary because not all criminal attorneys are well versed in sentencing guidelines.
“A lot of criminal defense attorneys might be good at trial, but they lose interest when it comes time for sentencing,” he said. “It’s not their bag. That’s where I step in.
“We look for holes in the case. We look for any attorney malpractice, judges who have made errors or prosecutors who have failed to keep their word in plea bargain.”
When ultraconservative and former presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche Jr. was convicted in 1988 of defrauding the government and supporters of millions of dollars, his attorneys consulted Ellis’ firm about how to get the best sentence.
Among Ellis’ other well known clients were former Atlantic City Mayor Michael Mathews, who was convicted of taking bribes in office, and Steven Kalish, who was convicted of running drugs with Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega.
Mathews’ attorneys consulted Ellis to advise them on what kind of sentence to ask for, and Ellis helped chip down Kalish’s sentence from 14 years to 10.
It also helps to have six other attorneys and a social worker on staff as well as two former Bureau of Prisons officials as consultants, Ellis says.
Ellis says his firm has a policy of not taking cases it can’t win.
“We have very fragile egos,” he said.
No matter where or how long Ellis’ clients serve, it’s still hard time, he says.
“They’re going through the deprivation of their liberty, which is the most important thing,” he said. “They’re away from their loved ones. There is no such thing as a conjugal visit in the federal system.”
McGinley knows about losing her liberty. For the last four years, she’s been coping with separation from her two sons, ages 12 and 14, who are living with her parents in Nebraska.
“My children need me,” she said.
Despite a 23-month reduction, McGinley believes she’d been dealt with too harshly.
“I think I probably deserve maybe a couple of years of counseling,” she said. “That would have been more than enough. Particularly now, it just seems like a real overkill and a waste of time.”