A classic political cartoon by the great Thomas Nast depicts members of the Tweed Ring standing in a circle (naturally), each one pointing to the next in answer to the question in the caption: “Who stole the people’s money?”
That’s the image that comes to mind watching the lawyers associated with Prenda Law Inc., try to dodge sanctions by U.S. District Judge Otis D. Wright II in Los Angeles by blaming one another.
Prenda is the firm I wrote about Wednesday, describing its practice of filing scattershot lawsuits against Internet subscribers, accusing them of illegally downloading pornographic movies and threatening to make their actions public unless they pay a nominal settlement fee.
Hauled into Wright’s courtroom last week to explain their legal strategy, several of the Prenda lawyers pleaded the 5th Amendment. Wright is pondering sanctions against them, and worse. Their briefs arguing why they’re innocent of the potential charges started landing in court Tuesday. The bottom line for each one is that it’s someone else’s fault.
First up: Paul Duffy, an officer of Prenda; Angela Van Den Hemel, a paralegal; and the law firm itself; all represented by San Diego lawyer Heather Rosing. Addressing Wright’s complaint that Prenda kept trying to subpoena information from Internet providers about their subscribers even after he put the subpoenas on hold, they blamed Brett Gibbs.
Gibbs is a Northern California lawyer who says he was hired as an outside counsel to handle a few cases for Prenda and didn’t make policy but followed instructions from Paul Hansmeier and John Steele, two other Prenda lawyers. “They should not be sanctioned for Gibbs’s conduct,” Rosing said.
Then there’s Hansmeier, who says he “neither employed nor supervised Gibbs.” And Steele, who says the same. Steele also observes, regarding the subpoenas, that Gibbs only testified that he talked about them with Hansmeier, which means he did not “involve or implicate Steele at all.”
In the words of Ken White, a lawyer who has been blogging superbly about the case at popehat.com, “there’s no omerta with this crew.”
Most fascinating is the Prenda lawyers’ dodging and weaving about Alan Cooper, who is purportedly an officer of two porn movie firms Prenda ostensibly represented as clients in the piracy lawsuits. (Wright’s suspicion is that the movie companies are fronts for the law firm.) The only Cooper anyone has found was the unpaid caretaker at Steele’s rural Minnesota cabin; that Cooper has alleged that his name was used without his permission.
Rosing’s clients and Steele both contend that Cooper is mentally unbalanced. That’s a curious way of addressing the charge that Prenda used him as a stand-in movie executive. If Cooper’s name was used illicitly, White points out, “it means that Prenda principals, rather than stealing an identity to serve as the principal of a front company, used a mentally ill caretaker as the putative executive of a front company.” Is this really how Prenda is trying to make itself look innocent?
Wright is likely to rule on possible sanctions against these people shortly. The words “stay tuned” never packed as much punch.